Last week Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Jammu and Kashmir to inaugurate two development projects that will help shape the State’s future — the Qazigund-Rajvansher railway line and the Baghliar Dam. Elected representatives of the people of the State ought to have been standing by his side. That they were not was a reflection of the problematical situation brought about by communal polarisation over the Amarnath Yatra issue. During a recent visit to J&K, the Election Commission of India heard from a range of politicians about the feasibility and desirability of holding elections in November-December. Naturally, the assessments varied. Broadly, the parties that fancied their prospects favoured an immediate election while others wanted the democratic exercise delayed or were equivocal. One distinctive view that emerged was that enough has been done to still the tide of ethnic-religious hatred that surged across the State this summer. Some parties argued that a programme of peace-making centred on negotiations with secessionists had to precede elections — else voter turnout would be embarrassingly low. Apprehensions were expressed that violence by terrorist groups could undermine the election process and some accusations of anti-Kashmiri bias were levelled against Governor’s Rule.
Some of the concerns are legitimate — but there are several good reasons not to procrastinate. First, the United Progressive Alliance government has already met the key demands of protesters in Kashmir, notably opening up the Line of Control for trade. It is unclear what more can be done in the short term, particularly with the 15th general election nearing. Secondly, there is no realistic prospect of talks with secessionists materialising soon. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said — not for the first time — that he is open to negotiations. But despite appeals from Pakistan-administered Kashmir leaders like Sardar Abdul Qayum Khan, and some constructive prodding by President Asif Ali Zardari, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference has laid down impossible preconditions for dialogue. Thirdly, the overall security situation argues for a November-December Assembly election in J&K (to be held alongside State Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Mizoram, and Rajasthan). Infiltration routes across the mountains on the Line of Control are now closed. Security management will become more, not less, difficult as the months roll by. Police formations sent into J&K to protect the Amarnath Yatra are still stationed there, but they are likely to move to Maoist-hit areas as the general election approaches. It will be relatively easy to find enough companies of Central security forces to help ensure the peaceful, free, and fair conduct of the Assembly election in J&K now rather than in April-May 2009, when the 15th general election is due. Finally, while it is likely that voter turnout in the Kashmir Valley will be low, as it was in 1996 and 2002, there is no real reason to believe a delay of some months will make things better. There is a political vacuum that needs to be filled in J&K; it is better it is filled by mainstream political parties than by the Hurriyat, especially its extremist elements. Any election in Kashmir is an exercise in risk-taking and the risk will not go away by delaying the exercise. The people of J&K have been through an awful lot. What they deserve is an elected Assembly and an accountable government — not the stasis of prolonged central rule.
6 months ago