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CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

HOPE FOR DEMOCRACY
SAMEER KAUL | 17 FEBRUARY 2014

Raconteurs of stories spiced with exaggeration and superlatives, Kashmiris love to talk endlessly.

Being one and having inherited the same traits, I, too, am thirsty and inquisitive for news of any kind. Consequently and over the previous two decades, I have never been able to resist that extra bit of chat with my patients from diverse geographical, economic, social and political backgrounds. Conversations conducted both in the sombre precincts of my outpatients' clinic and on the sidelines of noisy health camps have shared the ease of a common lingo and sometimes the intensity of Kashmir's torrential glacial rivers after an early summer thaw.

In my home state and ever since the 1930s, democratic belief has coexisted with both vigorous nationalism and secessionist tendencies. Kashmiri history is replete with instances of suppressed rural masses rising against despots who appeared on the scene every now and then. City folk, too, have frequently been singed by the fires of rebellion stoked mostly by their self-seeking elite. In fact, foreign non-native rule has only been possible because of the connivance of their nobles, who invited invaders, be they Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs or Dogras, to get rid of unwanted autocrats.

Around the time of Independence for undivided India and its subsequent tumultuous division, the political scenario was dominated by the nationalistic party, National Conference, convincingly lead by the charismatic Sheikh Abdullah. Its erstwhile constituent Muslim Conference had vied unsuccessfully for accession to co-religious Pakistan and opposed the Sheikh tooth and nail. The democratic mind-sets of the farmer-dominated Kissan Mazdoor Sangh and the coffee-house thronging, urban educated Democratic Socialist Party can hardly be refuted. But both were subsequently snuffed out by over-arching National Conference rule, which drew its strength from overt and covert support from the Congress-dominated Centre, despite sharing a love-hate relationship with them. That the earliest elections lacked transparency and accountability in the NC's conduct is as true as the timidness, political naiveté and emotional gullibility of the electorate. Both contributed in equal measure to sustain single party rule for nearly over four decades.

The elections of 1987 delivered a body-blow to democratic politics in the state. The ruling party failed to analyse the situation on a number of fronts for which the entire state would pay dearly. Evolved political maturity and expectations on the one hand, coupled with carefully-sown and by-now budding secessionism, on the other, formed a disastrous cocktail.

"Though all of us voted for the Muslim United Front, the rival candidate was announced as winner," said 21-year-old Munir, while driving me to the clinic on a crisp Srinagar morning.

This is the kind of stuff Syed Sallaudin and many other subversionists are made of. Droves of democratic political workers and activists jumped from the frying pans of frustration into the fires of armed struggle and blood-letting against the state for two-and-a-half decades. From 2003 to 2009 which saw a change of two governments, the pendulum started to swing back slowly towards mainstream polity. Thankfully and despite the florid mistrust existing between Centre and State, Kashmiris' faith in the institution of adult franchise survived. They turned up at the polling booths in fair numbers, old and young, men and women, braving death threats and ignoring the more recent shrill calls to boycott elections. Coalition politics made its entry, the Congress crept into state politics and therewith fulfilled its long-cherished desire. Weary yet angry youth swelled the membership of the newly and wisely envisioned and aptly positioned regional outfit, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). A brief three-year stint at relatively better governance, with a perceivable restoration of the dignity of locals and a contribution to conflict resolution by pushing cross border surface transportation and basic trade, consolidated the PDP's position as an alternative to the National Conference. An abrupt ending in the wake of Amarnath land row, then saw the termination of the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Congress Government. A near complete lack of communication or some semblance of a relationship between the ruler and the ruled, marred what would otherwise be termed as a fairly good spell. Double work-shifts or the concept of "zero tolerance" towards corruption were novel concepts, but implemented badly on the ground.

As the present coalition government anxiously traverses its penultimate year, taking stock of the political situation with a view to project into the near future is no mean task.

Omar Abdullah is unlikely to have enjoyed the benefit of hands-on training in the responsibilities of party politics, governance and administration which come with the job of chief minister. Only partially cooperative seniors in his party, an uneasy coalition partnership, the tragic death of 120 youth on the streets of Srinagar, the hanging of Afzal Guru, the non-abrogation of the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) despite frequent utterances to that effect and last but not the least, overall lacklustre governance leading to poor fiscal management and developmental arrest, are together his contribution towards creating a robust anti-incumbency.

Meanwhile, its strategic discouragement of regional satraps has returned to thwart the Congress' political ambitions in Kashmir. A lack of effective, mass-based leadership coupled with an impression of being soft on corruption and conveniently superficial on secularism are issues being attributed to it in the public domain.

"All thugs and dacoits now -- this wasn't so in our time," exclaims elderly Sula Tantray, a village blacksmith from Dyalgam in South Kashmir. Having spent a good portion of his youth as an ardent activist for Congress, he was reacting to recent media reports of sexual misconduct and the impending arrest of a Congress minister.

Electorally, the most vital shift in the Valley has been that of rural political affinity from the NC to the PDP. This rural political backbone which once enabled Sheikh Abdullah to realise Naya Kashmir is now in the thrall of the PDP. This is a voting populace that usually ignores boycott and comes out to vote in numbers, no matter what the threats.

The shift of the anti-Centre stand, which now rests firmly with the PDP, is yet another significant development. Finally, Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP phenomenon have filled young minds in Kashmir with hope: of being able to vote in the government they want and boot out non-performers. Minorities like Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs, too, yearn for change.

The stage is slowly yet surely being set for political change in the Valley. Unless some of us with a say in matters think otherwise and sound a death knell, there is hope for democracy. Yet.

(Sameer Kaul is the national spokesperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party. He is also a senior surgical Oncologist in Delhi.)

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