Dec 29, 2008

India - Mandate for secular democracy

Early in August, as his jeep wound its way through the piles of burning tyres that angry protestors had used to barricade the road from Srinagar airport into the city, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, 72, turned to a journalist sitting next to him with a smile on his face. “So,” he said, “are you here to write another article about how I don’t know how to run a government?” More likely than not, Dr. Abdullah’s leadership — or that of Jammu & Kashmir National Conference president, his son Omar Abdullah — will soon be put to the test. Having emerged as the single largest party in the J&K Assembly, with 28 seats in a house of 87, the National Conference has the undeniable right to form and lead the government. To do so, however, it will need the support of the Congress, which has picked up 17 seats. In 2002, the Congress joined hands with the People’s Democratic Party to form a government, and some in New Delhi would like to see the arrangement revived. But the party’s rank-and-file in the State are hostile to an alliance with the PDP, arguing that its religious-chauvinist politics and ‘soft separatism’ are unacceptable to their constituents. Battered by the violence unleashed in the wake of the PDP’s decision to pull out of the alliance after land-use rights were granted to the Shri Amarnath-ji Shrine, few in the State Congress have any desire to revive the relationship.

When the Congress central leadership meets to decide its course of action, it must consider the single most important message from this watershed election: the people of J&K have largely rejected religious chauvinism. The Election Commission of India has been brilliantly vindicated in its judgment of how people would respond to challenging circumstances. For the PDP, the returns from the incendiary communal campaign it ran this summer, and from its efforts to reach out to secessionists, have been quite disappointing. The party found that its hopes of emerging as the principal political voice of the Kashmir region have been thwarted, even though it secured the backing of the rank-and-file of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Winning 21 seats compared with 16 in 2002 is less impressive than it might seem. After all, in the 2004 Lok Sabha election the PDP was ahead in 25 Assembly segments. While the Jamaat-e-Islami’s participation in the election bodes well for the re-institutionalisation of democracy in the State, the election results have demonstrated that the PDP needs secular allies and partners in order to make a bid for power — allies and partners who will not be forthcoming unless the party moderates its stance and builds bridges across religious and ethnic lines.

Hindutva chauvinism hasn’t paid off despite the seemingly dramatic improvement in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fortunes, which have taken its tally from just one seat in 2002 to 11 now. Claims that the BJP has ridden a communal tide in Jammu are empirically unsustainable. First, it must be recalled that the ultra-right Jammu State Morcha broke away from the BJP on the eve of the 2002 Assembly election. Had this division of votes not taken place, simple arithmetic suggests that the BJP would have won eight seats in that contest. The 2008 results mark an improvement in the BJP’s fortunes but only a modest one. Even more significantly, most of the 2008 victories have come in areas where the Amarnath Shrine movement remained muted. The BJP’s efforts to capitalise on communal polarisation have, for the most part, ended in failure. Kirti Verma, the wife of a protestor who committed suicide, has been defeated in Vijaypur and a senior BJP leader, Nirmal Singh, also suffered defeat in Samba, which witnessed some of the most intense violence in Jammu this summer. Most of the party’s victories have come in areas that saw relatively little violence but where voters were dissatisfied with the developmental record of incumbents. This is a lesson the party must heed if it wishes to expand its Statewide reach in the future.

Despite the political risks, both Dr. Abdullah and former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad swam against the chauvinist current this summer. They refused to be drawn into the ugly politics that threatened to rip Jammu and Kashmir apart. Voters have rewarded them for their sobriety. Now the responsible course for the Congress is accepting the primacy of the National Conference and forming a coalition with it to provide the people of the State the secular, development-oriented, and transparent government they voted for. Support from independents and the small secular parties will be needed to ensure stability for this arrangement. The central government must lose no time in pushing forward the broad-based consultative process on J&K’s future that was instituted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but has made little progress. In the coming months, the growing reach and influence of Islamist terror groups in Pakistan could well pose a threat to the fragile peace in the State. For years, the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference has been allowed to exercise a de facto veto on the course and tempo of the peace process. Now the focus must shift to empowering the elected legislators and enabling them to work together towards a road map for J&K’s future. For too long has genuine autonomy, promised to the State by the Indian Constitution, remained elusive. Broad-based agreement on this issue will give ideological protection against the jihadist threat to the secular democratic revival that so many have given their lives for. The 2008 election results are a slap in the face for religious fundamentalists and precisely the tonic that India needs, post-Mumbai, to demonstrate its absolute commitment to secular democracy.

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