By afternoon on May 23, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was tweeting her congratulations to the Bharatiya Janata Party. “Today surely belongs to BJP and its allies,” wrote the leader of the People’s Democratic party.
Till June last year, the People’s Democratic Party and the BJP had also been allies in the Jammu and Kashmir state government. Then the BJP walked out of the coalition, plunging the state into governor’s rule.
It turned out to be a disastrous alliance for the People’s Democratic Party and for Mufti personally.
In 2014, she had won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, which spans the four districts of South Kashmir –Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam, Anantnag. These districts had traditionally been the stronghold of the People’s Democratic Party. Five years later, the Anantnag constituency is the epicentre of the local militancy that has gained ground in the Kashmir Valley and Mufti has conceded defeat, trailing behind both the National Conference and the Congress.
Going by the trends on the Election Commission website, the People’s Democratic Party, which won all three seats of the Kashmir Valley in 2014, will be replaced by the National Conference, which is now leading in all of them.
Apart from the violence that has become routine in Kashmir, these elections occurred among anxieties that the Centre would destroy the autonomy that insulated Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of the country. Abolishing Article 370 has long been part of the BJP’s core agenda. Article 35A, which grants the state government the power to define the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir and endow them with special privileges, is facing challenges in court.
Identity, then, was the defining theme of these elections. Mufti had pleaded for votes saying she would protect Kashmiri Muslim identity from encroachment by an increasingly Hindu nationalist Centre, that she would fight for Kashmiri rights in the Indian Parliament. Going by the results, voters were not buying it. But going by the dismal voter turnout across constituencies, they might not trust any party to speak for their rights in Parliament.
Speaking for Kashmir
The People’s Democratic Party, founded by Mehbooba Mufti’s father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 1999, built a fiefdom in South Kashmir. Bijbehara, the hometown of the Muftis, is in Anantnag district. They also found support among the many well-heeled orchard owners of the South.
But most of all, in the early 2000s, the party won support on the promise of “self-rule”, a magic solution that was to accommodate Kashmiri nationalist aspirations within the framework of Indian democracy.
In the early years, the party’s so-called soft separatism extended beyond its manifesto into gestures of sympathy. While the party talked of a “healing touch” and curbing state excesses in the Valley, Mufti became known for visiting militant families and grieving for their lost sons. It prompted a slightly disconcerted separatist leadership of the Hurriyat to give her the nickname of “Rudaali”, or professional mourner.
The party’s victory in 2002 is also said to have been helped by a tacit understanding with the Jama’at-e-Islami, whose stronghold was also South Kashmir. A socio-religious group that preaches the doctrine of “political Islam”, the Jama’at had long abjured elections and become known as the ideological parent of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
These promises and gestures are now history, When it allied with the Hindu nationalist BJP in 2015, the People’s Democratic Party seemed to have left its “soft-separatist” days behind.
After the mass protests of 2016, where nearly a hundred civilians were killed and hundreds more wounded in action by security forces, it emerged firmly on the side of an increasingly unpopular Centre. Mufti now became known for a series of Marie Antoinette-like statements: children hit by pellets and bullets were not going towards army camps to “buy toffee”, only “5%” wanted trouble while “95%” wanted order.
Finally, earlier this year, the Jama’at was banned by the Centre.
Now out of government, Mufti railed against the proscription and against civilian killings in election rallies. Most dismissed it as “political drama”.
A lasting shift?
Of course, since the early 2000s, the Valley has swung between the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. The difference in these Lok Sabha polls lies elsewhere.
According to political wisdom in the Valley, protestors who demanded “azadi” on the streets would also queue up outside polling booths soon afterwards. But after the protest of 2016, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani, they did not.
Voter turnouts have remained persistently low since then. In 2017, bye-elections were scheduled for the Anantnag and Srinagar Lok Sabha seats. Eight people were killed in protests during the Srinagar bye-elections and the turnout fell to 7.14%, the lowest in 30 years. The Anantnag polls had to be postponed indefinitely.
The municipal polls of 2018 saw single digit turnouts across four phases in the Valley. In the panchayat polls later that year, most seats in the Valley saw no contest, either because the candidate won unopposed or there were no candidates at all.
In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, Anantnag which went to vote in three phases, recorded a voter turnout of 8.76%, down from from 28.54% in 2014. Srinagar did not fare much better, at 14%. North Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency saw a 35% turnout, which is still much lower than the national average of 67%.
Once, high turnouts were counted as a vote of faith in the Indian government. By that metric, these elections portend more than the rout of the People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir. They suggest a complete erosion of representative democracy in the Valley.