It’s been almost a year since the Bharatiya Janata Party and the People’s Democratic Party came together to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir. The December 2014 Assembly elections threw up a hung house, with the PDP emerging the largest party ahead of the BJP. After 67 days of political poker, the parties finally struck a compromise, agreeing not to rake up their stated political positions and maintain a status quo on all controversial issues. Now, the two parties are it again.
The state has been without an elected government since the death of chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the first week of January. His daughter, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, has delayed the formation of a government, indicating that she wants some "confidence-building measures" for the state from the BJP-ruled government at the Centre. It also wants the BJP to adhere to the Agenda of Alliance, the common minimum programme over which the parties had come together last year. On Monday, the BJP asked the PDP to take a final call on government formation before the Budget Session of Parliament on February 23.
As the deadlock continues, with the PDP trying to gain some semblance of control within the alliance and the BJP adamant on remaining in the driver's seat, the Kashmiri people are seemingly tired of the games and have lost interest in the outcome. In fact, many have stopped watching altogether.
“It is a fixed match,” said Mohammad Iqbal Khan, a bank employee in Srinagar. “Who wants to watch a fixed match? It’s story whose end we already know. One can’t be fooled by the same trick twice and that too within a year. That would be a shame.”
Khan said he was a first-time voter in the 2014 Assembly elections, and regretted his decision after watching the political drama unfold over the next two months. During that election campaign, he said, the prevailing feeling was that the march of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP into Kashmir needed to be stopped.
“I fell for it, my older brother fell for it, and we voted for the PDP,” said Khan. “And when they allied with the BJP, it was shame to accept that we had been made complete fools. Now, they can marry the devil himself. It doesn’t matter.”
Losing the crowd
Khan’s indifference and disinterest about the government formation appears to be the common sentiment in Kashmir.
At the kandur waans – the bakeries – where the day begins for the typical Kashmiri, the political stalemate hardly evokes a response around the hearths where political gossip is usually the norm.
A man in his late forties waiting for his bread said that the black dog and the white dog are brothers, and only fools and the liars are deceived for the difference in the colour.
“What is the big deal about who will form the government?” he asked. “National Conference can form a government with the BJP, BJP can make government with PDP, they can both make government with Congress, or all of them could hug each other and trample on our lives. Isn’t that what has happened here all along?”
The man, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he had never voted in his life and never would. Sitting cross-legged beside him was 51-year-old Rahman Malik, who admitted to voting for the PDP but now felt compelled not to look their way anymore.
“If it were up to me, I would send a plague their way,” he said. “I believed the PDP’s words when they said that they would fight for our dignity from India, from the Indian army, and I thought that maybe these parties would help us economically and change things politically as well. But Mufti joined the BJP to become the chief minister and did nothing at all.”
Malik said he wouldn’t know whom to vote for should fresh elections be held. “Maybe the National Conference this time,” he laughed.
A senior PDP leader and former cabinet minister argued that irrespective of whether the PDP or BJP emerged triumphant, democracy would be the winner. Another PDP leader compared the electoral politics in Kashmir to a game of musical chairs that they would like to keep playing as long it kept out an opposite force that threatened to stop the music and break the chairs.
There is a sound background to this rationale. After the rupture in the established political system in Kashmir following a popular armed uprising in 1989, the pro-India political parties gathered again in a decade’s time and cannily positioned themselves in between the pro-Independence, pro-Pakistan camp and the Indian political and military establishment.
From this seemingly middle ground in which they began to operate, the National Conference passed an Autonomy resolution in the state Assembly (which was summarily rejected without a discussion by New Delhi) and harped on Kashmir’s distinct identity and aspirations within the Indian Union.
The PDP went even further with a self-rule slogan by promising to make the borders irrelevant, creating a mechanism of joint control by India and Pakistan and a dual currency. They began to promise a kind of independence within the boundaries of India. And after a decade of war in Kashmir that witnessed innumerable atrocities, the middle path was sold as the respectable way out. It was touted by PDP loyalists as a case of "choosing the possible over the ideal".
But last year, the PDP’s embrace of the BJP and its complete silence on the rhetoric that brought it to power has brought great disillusionment among people who had voted for the PDP. “Earlier I did feel that PDP was different than the NC, the Congress and the BJP, and that is why I had some hopes from the PDP, and not only did I vote for them but also campaigned for them in my extended family,” said Khurram Ahmad Handoo, who works at a pharmaceutical company. “But they joined the BJP once, they can join the BJP again, if not today then tomorrow.”
Handoo said that he wouldn't vote again because he no longer saw the purpose of the exercise.
“What they are doing now is another game," he said. "It is not for us but their own political space and fortune that the PDP is playing now, and now I am not interested in their lies. I swear that last year I was obsessed with whether or not they would join BJP and I would argue with everyone that they would not, but this time they don’t matter at all to me. In a way, I feel free.”