Kashmir Acquires a Resonance in Indian Elections Unlike Anytime in Past

SRINAGAR —  Kashmir has always been an issue in India’s national elections but this time it has acquired a resonance unlike anytime in the past. With the  BJP making national security its central poll plank following the Pulwama attack which killed 40 CRPF personnel and triggered skirmishes with Pakistan, the issues related to the state have moved to the centre-stage. 

The ruling party has aggressively brought  up the situation in the state  to drum up public support. From the prime minister Narendra Modi on down to home minister Rajnath Singh, finance minister Arun Jaitley to Amit Shah himself, the BJP has been unrelenting on Kashmir in its campaign rhetoric. 

Not only that, unlike the Congress and the other opposition parties, the BJP’s top leaders comprising PM Modi, Singh and Shah – the party’s veritable triumvirate – have also visited J&K to deliver election speeches. 

“One reason for this is the BJP’s longstanding ideological position on the state which in recent years has found increasing resonance with a significant section of the population across the country,” says the political analyst and Kashmir University professor Dr Gull Wani. “And another reason is that Kashmir,  because of the immediate mental association with the conflict with Pakistan evoked by it, is a deeply polarising issue. So an issue like this snugly slots into the BJP’s nationalist agenda”. 

Congress  has stayed short of locking on to the issue as proactively, choosing rather to buck the BJP’s nationalist challenge and shift the battlefield to development issues where the saffron party is perceived to be on the defensive. Hence the minimum income guarantee scheme like Nyay and promises of measures to alleviate rural distress have supplanted the accent on ideology. 

In its manifesto, though, Congress has duly talked about Kashmir but in terms of the promise of reconciliatory measures like the appointment of three interlocutors to hold dialogue with the dissident groups and the dilution of  the AFSPA that shields security personnel against the cases related to human rights excesses. 

On the contrary, the BJP in its manifesto has reiterated its hard-line ideological position on the state. It has renewed its pledge to revoke Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution to play to its wider nationalist constituency. In Kashmir, the moves to withdraw these constitutional safeguards is seen as a bid to pave the way for a demographic change in the state. 

Though regional opposition parties have largely stayed away from Kashmir, the growing BJP accent on the state has forced Mamata Banerjee to join the debate. Trinamool Congress leader and the Bengal Chief Minister has said she was “willing to stay in Kashmir” to bring peace to the state.

This disproportionate attention to the state in the country’s election discourse may appear at gross variance with the fact that Kashmir sends just six seats to the Parliament. The state looms large for historical and political reasons – chiefly for the fact that the dispute over its political status is at the heart of the long running conflict with Pakistan. Add to this the fact that the election campaign itself began in the wake of Kashmir bringing the two countries to the brink of war.  

“It is not a numerical argument, it is an argument based on facts. Yes we only have six seats but Jammu and Kashmir bats far above its rankings otherwise. The smallest thing in Jammu and Kashmir becomes international news, very big things in other states are often ignored. So, I think six members in Parliament can do more than 60 from another state,” the National Conference leader Omar Abdullah recently told media. 

Pulwama attack happened when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to be losing the battle of narratives with the Congress and the other opposition parties. Congress was successful in putting development and jobs at the front and centre of the national discourse.  But Pulwama brought the national security back to the front burner, helping the BJP regain the initiative. And the subsequent attack on Jaish-e-Mohammad camp at Balakot only further burnished Modi’s image, building up on 2016 surgical strikes. Though Balakot fallout didn’t entirely go to the BJP’s expectations, the party has so far been able to spin it to its advantage as an exampler of the party’s tough stance on terrorism. 

However, as the BJP’s pitch for scrapping Article 370 and 35A underlines, Kashmir’s importance for the party goes far beyond its response to Pulwama. The troubled state underpins the party’s national security and ideological  vision for India.  And Congress not publicly opposing the BJP’s Kashmir agenda also shows the perceived peril of taking a liberal position on the state in today’s India. But this again validates a big Kashmir factor in play in the polls. 

“Congress Kashmir agenda is a ray of hope even though the party hasn’t publicly joined issue with the BJP,” senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar said. “But for the BJP and the RSS, Kashmir is emerging as the bigger issue than even Ram Mandir. They will continue to use it for their electoral advantage”. 

But Kashmir, Akhtar warned, can also be a costly issue to mess with. “As Pulwama demonstrated, a muscular approach only necessitates a war, either with Pakistan or against Kashmiris themselves,” Akhtar said. “The issue is can the country afford to go to war after every major attack in Kashmir. A chest thumping approach to the state and using it as an instrument to mobilize votes only complicates the issue and pushes South Asia towards war”.

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