Saturday, March 18, 2023
HomePoliticsThere’s a ‘political vacuum’ in Kashmir and Rahul's Bharat Jodo hasn’t bridged...

There’s a ‘political vacuum’ in Kashmir and Rahul’s Bharat Jodo hasn’t bridged it

To many in Srinagar, Rahul Gandhi’s flag hoisting in Lal Chowk was just another political display. Post abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, Kashmiris have 'lost faith in Delhi parties’, analysts say.

Text Size:

Srinagar: When Rahul Gandhi hoisted the tricolour at the iconic Lal Chowk clocktower in Srinagar last week, the Congress called it a historic moment and the BJP applauded itself for “normalising” Kashmir. But for locals running businesses here, political events simply mean losing a day’s revenue. Many, in fact, are cynical about any activity by “Delhi parties”, whether it be the Congress or the BJP.

“We were told the night before that we couldn’t open our stores because of Rahul Gandhi’s yatra and as usual, we obliged. You don’t ask ‘why’ here. It is usual practice and we are used to it,” an employee at a garment shop in Lal Chowk told ThePrint.

Gandhi unfurling the flag at Lal Chowk at the end of his Bharat Jodo Yatra had become a matter of political debate. A yatri who’d accompanied Gandhi from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in the 4,000-km long walkathon said that it was a matter of pride that her leader could hoist the flag at a place known for “terror”. The BJP, on the other hand, said that the reason a “mainland politician” like Gandhi could perform such an act was because of the ‘Naya Kashmir’ created after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019.

Rahul Gandhi at Lal Chowk | Photo by special arrangement

But for the people in Lal Chowk it was yet another show by yet another political party. Even back when Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted the national flag in Lal Chowk in 1948 — something that the Congress has compared Rahul’s feat to — it signalled only broken promises, alleged the shop employee quoted earlier.

“At the time, Nehru had promised a plebiscite. To this day, the promise remains on paper. No one talks about it. And when Rahul Gandhi came, we didn’t have the freedom to ask him about it,” he claimed.

“A political event only means something when we have the right to express our political opinions and question the leaders. But we can’t because we know the consequences that await us,” he added.

When asked about Nehru’s promise of a plebiscite at a press conference in Srinagar, Gandhi had skirted the question, saying that he did not want to get into the “historical aspect”.

The cynicism of the people, however, is not just restricted to the Congress. There seems to be a certain disillusionment with politicians and politics in general after 2019. And “Delhi parties” are viewed with the greatest scepticism.

“There has been a lot of disillusionment in Kashmir with national politics post 2019. Congress is also using a safe narrative because of its own political considerations nationally. The only thing that works for them is that there has been so much disillusionment with the BJP and its politics. If there’s no choice, Congress becomes slightly more acceptable because of its ideological leanings,” said professor Noor Ahmad Baba, an academician and political analyst, based in Srinagar.

He added that there was a political vacuum in the state owing to the reduced operations of regional parties like the National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) since the abrogation of Article 370 and the former state being split into the two Union territories of J&K and Ladakh.

“Since 2019, Kashmir did not have a free democratic space within which the regional parties could remain active and operate freely. Therefore, these have remained to some extent disconnected from people and, in the process, have not been able to gain political space. But in the absence of a viable alternative for the people against the BJP these parties could fare better in a future elections,” he said.

Also read: ‘Not scattered but there are differences’, says Rahul Gandhi about Opposition as Bharat Jodo ends

‘Anybody but Modi’

As Rahul Gandhi’s final march began from Pantha Chowk in Srinagar on 29 January, a little boy, dressed in a blue jacket, tried to maneuver a flag, hoisted on a stick at least four times his height. The women accompanying the child encouraged him to hold it properly so that the gathered media could capture a good photo.

However, the women immediately covered their own faces whenever a camera pointed towards them. When asked if they were Congress supporters, the women said they were “with everybody”. A caveat followed, albeit in a quieter tone — “anybody but Modi”.

A boy holding up a flag at Pantha Chowk in Srinagar | Credit: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

Like many others in Srinagar, these women had come out on the streets during the yatra because they were curious to see what was happening, rather than out of a sense of political affiliation.

Two women, who run a salon in the city, told ThePrint that they thought that the rally was led by both Gandhi and actor Urmila Matondkar, who’d joined the Yatra for a day in Nagrota, Jammu.

It is worth noting that the Bharat Jodo Yatra was not the first large political rally that Kashmir has seen since 2019, nor was it the only one that pulled crowds.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra procession in Pulwama, Kashmir, on 28 January | Credit: Amogh Rohmetra | ThePrint

Last October, droves of people attended BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s rally in Baramulla. Many Paharis also came to the event, jubilant about the newly-promised reservation for the community.

In November, PDP chief and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti addressed a rally in Srinagar for a convention of the party’s youth wing. In December, after Farooq Abdullah was re-elected as NC president, he and his son Omar Abdullah addressed party workers at a rally in Srinagar.

The Altaf Bukhari-led J&K Apni Party also held a rally last November at the Sher-e-Kashmir Park in Srinagar.

Still, in the absence of elections, the perception endures that there is a political vacuum in the state.

‘Space for mainstream parties has shrunk’

For national parties like the Congress and the BJP, Kashmir has been a fortress they’ve been unable to breach electorally, though they’ve done better in Jammu.

Of the 46 assembly seats that the Valley had since 1995, the highest number of seats that the Congress has won in the region was seven in 2014.

It was the first time that the party had won more seats in Kashmir than in Jammu, where it won five of 37 seats.

Of the past five elected governments in the former state, the Congress was part of a coalition with the NC in 1987 and 2008. In 2002, it had formed a government with the PDP. Former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Chief Minister of the state from 2005 to 2008.

PDP posters along the route of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti has described it as a ‘breath of fresh air’ | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

The BJP, on the other hand, has never won a single assembly seat in Kashmir. In Jammu, however, the party won 25 seats in 2014, its highest tally ever.

Thereafter, the BJP entered a post-poll alliance with the PDP, which had emerged as the single-largest party in the state despite not winning any seats in Jammu. The PDP continued with the BJP in an uneasy alliance, until the latter withdrew in June 2018. Governor’s rule was imposed in the state for the next six months, after which President’s rule was instated.

In August that year, statehood was revoked and J&K came under the control of the BJP-led central government.

The abrogation was seen differently in Jammu and Kashmir, which are distinct in both their culture and their politics. While Jammu welcomed it, the people of Kashmir saw it as an affront to their identity. Both the PDP and the NC at the time, were seen to be in “cahoots” with Delhi, say sources in both parties.

A meeting of NC’s Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar with Prime Minister Modi, days before the abrogation was announced, was seen as proof of their involvement with the decision.

However, both of them, as well as Mehbooba were placed under house arrest as soon as the decision was announced. At the time, all three had also announced that they would not contest elections till J&K’s statehood and Article 370 was reinstated, though their parties would. In December 2022, Farooq Abdullah said that Omar would contest when elections happen.

The only electoral exercise that has taken place since August 2019 has been the elections to the District Development Council (DDC), a local body, in 2020. The PDP and the NC which fought the elections together, along with smaller parties, in an alliance known as the People’s Alliance For Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) won 110 of 278 seats. The elections saw a turnout of 51 per cent.

Members of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah and others during a press conference after their meeting, at Bathindi in Jammu, on 7 November 2020 | PTI
File photo of members of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah and others during a press conference at Jammu, on 7 Nov 2020 | PTI

While the NC maintains that the turnout in the DDC elections shows people’s continued faith in regional parties, the PDP concedes that a political vacuum did exist.

“Of course there was a political vacuum. The entire political establishment was thrown in jail. As were activists and scholar,” Suhail Bukhari, chief spokesperson of the PDP, told ThePrint.

Ifra Jan, spokesperson of the NC, however, claimed that the BJP wants people to think there is a vacuum.

“It is an indirect way of deligitimising the mandate of the people. If there was a vacuum, why did the NC sweep the DDC elections? Why was the voter turnout so high? Just because the national media doesn’t run our PR 24×7, doesn’t mean that people’s political aspirations don’t align with us,” she said.

For both parties, settling on a stance towards the BJP is a work in progress.

Sources in the NC said that while the senior Abdullah is intent on sticking with THE PAGD alliance, Omar seems to be on the fence. While Farooq believes the continuation of the alliance will “bring BJP to the table”, Omar thinks that a certain amount of dialogue is required to conduct elections in the state and end the existing political stalemate.

Bukhari of the PDP said that since abrogation there have been competing narratives by the mainstream parties.

“Mainstream political parties represented one view. It was largely within the ambit of the Indian Constitution for the rights (of people). When 2019 happened and those constitutional guarantees were snatched, of course it led to a lot of resentment. It made many people question the mainstream political parties”, said Bukhari.

He added: “It shrunk the space of the mainstream parties. Over the past two-three years, as people go through suppression, they want someone to articulate their pain.”

Assembly elections in J&K were scheduled for 2020, but were postponed in view of the delimitation exercise in the state. The process was completed in May 2022 and all parties in the state have demanded that elections be held as soon as possible.

Political clout of ‘separatist voices’

Political analysts in the Valley, on condition of anonymity, meanwhile pointed towards a vacuum created by the absence of “separatist voices”, who’ve been incarcerated post-2019.

They say that a political space was occupied by outfits like the Hurriyat Conference before the abrogation. The Hurriyat was led by the late Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who contested the claim of India on Jammu and Kashmir.

Geelani passed away in September 2021, while other prominent leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq have been under house arrest since 2019. The Hurriyat office in Srinagar was also sealed by the administration on 29 January, the last day of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Analysts believe that the Hurriyat enjoyed a lot of support in the Valley, but that space, “representing voice of a lot of people”, has been vacated. This, they say, has added to the widespread disillusionment with politics.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that people do not want to vote, said professor Baba.

“I think today people will come out and vote in large numbers. Boycott [of elections] would mean reinforcing the current status quo. People possibly want change. Nowadays, people are conscious. You want to constantly go out and vote if it is a free and fair election,” he said.

“People are more likely to vote for regional parties. In case there is no option, they will also vote for a national party like the Congress, even though historically, Kashmiris have not had a very pleasant experience with them,” Baba added. “I think compared to BJP, it could become somewhat more acceptable in the absence of a viable regional alternative.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Comeback for J&K Congress after 3-decade decline? Bharat Jodo crowds in Jammu spark hope



Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular