Cover Story: General Election 2019

Straining At the Fringes

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Away from the humdrum of noisy electioneering, on three edges of the country—Kashmir, the Assam border and the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh—democracy faces different varieties of disenchantment that are hard to undo

FAR FROM THE POLITICALLY CHARGED zones of the Hindi heartland and the calm southern periphery lies a silent arena of India’s democracy. Here there are no roadshows and massive political rallies that are the standard fare of electioneering elsewhere. In one of the most contested elections in recent memory there has scarcely been any mention of politics in Kashmir, Assam and the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, the triad that marks the ideological and physical edges of the country. Equally, these areas, too, are unconcerned about what goes on in the rest of India. Here, there is no buzz about Balakot or resonance to the debate on unemployment or, for that matter, anything else from national issues. It has been known for long that these edge sectors are impervious to normal appeals of democracy. Individually, voters in these areas are characterised by alienation, resignation and, in one case, belief that numbers are essential for the security of their community. Collectively, these three features lead to violence, withdrawal and an intensely communal pattern of voting. The usual tropes that accompany the ‘Idea of India’ are wholly at a discount in these regions. It is clear that if normal politics has to have a chance then a very different formula needs to be figured. So far there is no sign that this is being attempted.


THE FORLORN HOUSES ARE THE ONLY remaining witness to a 2003 massacre carried out by terrorists but there is little else that suggests anything sinister in Nadimarg. In a creek not far from the abandoned houses, a spring stream gurgles along. Virtually all the landscapes that people from India’s hot plains yearn for—fruit gardens with cool shade, crisp air and a view of snow-capped mountains—are for the asking. The undulating terrain of South Kashmir also happens to be the home of militancy.

In the apple orchard along the stream a local politician is staring at the houses that have begun to show signs of neglect. “Didn’t [A S] Dulat say somewhere in his book that the only things that are straight in Kashmir are the poplars?” he says, referring to Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, a book by the former R&AW chief. “He was wrong on this as well. It is the Russian poplars that are straight; the Kashmiri ones crook towards their top.” He was not being pejorative about his people. He was being practical: the combination of dense orchards and poplars are an ideal hiding place for terrorists. “Get rid of the poplars and 20 per cent of the problem will go away.”

Even if one discards the rather random 20 per cent, this is a view that is unpopular in Kashmir and New Delhi. In Kashmir, this is as good as betraying the cause of freedom; in the intellectual salons of New Delhi, it is a deeply instrumental view of things, one that is the cause and not a solution to the Kashmir problem.

The recently concluded election in the Anantnag Parliamentary Constituency—which encompasses Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian districts of South Kashmir—gives an aura of plausibility to this claim. On April 23rd, when the first phase of polling took place, Open found the urban areas of the Anantnag district— Bijbehara and Anantnag town—to be deserted. One could say that the ‘Joint Resistance Leadership’—the name of the separatist front that waves the wand of protest in Srinagar—had given a call for a hartal, timed with the day of the polling. The shutdown call, however, was not the only reason for the abysmally low polling in urban areas. In Mattan, a rural area just outside Anantnag town, a local magistrate said only 174 of the 9,020 voters in 12 polling booths had turned up by around mid-day. In Bijbehara, a stronghold of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti who is also the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate from the constituency, the turnout was its lowest ever—only 2.04 per cent of more than 93,000 voters showed up on the poll day. The story was repeated in many polling centres in the area. People simply did not turn up to vote in urban areas. The overall tally: just a tad short of 13 per cent

Six days later, the same story played out all over again. This time in Kulgam district on April 29th where the second round of the three-phase polling was held. Virtually no voting was recorded in urban areas—Kulgam recorded a turnout of 1.72 per cent. Rural areas were better with places like Noorabad and Devsar seeing brisk voting by Kashmiri standards. Noorabad polled 20.58 per cent and Devsar 16.84 per cent. The third and the final phase of voting showed abysmal results: the total voting percentage for Pulwama was 2.14 per cent while that for Shopian was 2.88 per cent

It is only fair to question the credibility of such an election whatever the reason for poor voter response. But such is the convoluted nature of politics in Kashmir that the same observation is deeply undermining of the voters who did turn out to repose their faith in parliamentary politics. In places like Pehalgam, Dooru, Kokernag and Shangus, where the voting percentage was in double digits, it can be safely said that the turnout was nothing less than remarkable. It is not the turnout—homeopathic by Indian standards—but the place where the vote was cast that matters. The idea of sending a local to Parliament attracts so much hostility that one observer termed the high turnout areas as “pro-India”.

“People here are more interested in Assembly elections as compared to the one for Parliament. The reason being the candidate in the Assembly is a local while for Parliament he represents four constituencies of South Kashmir. So access for locals becomes difficult. That is one reason for the low turnout,” says Javed Rahim Bhat, a National Conference (NC) functionary in Pulwama.

It is hard to find the NC office in Pulwama town. Tucked away in a side lane, the building has an imposing double iron gate and walls topped with concertina wire. “In North Kashmir, there is open campaigning. For example, there are roadshows and rallies. But in South Kashmir the mode of campaigning is different. We do door-to-door campaigning or talk to people inside their homes. There is no problem for our local workers but it is a problem for big leaders because of the security situation. The police and the administration don’t permit big shows,” he adds.

If this is the situation in the main towns—where police and CRPF checkposts line the roads—what hope can there be for rural areas?

It is here that the ‘narrative’—a peculiarly Delhi word— about alienation in Kashmir breaks down. The political paradox of Kashmir is that towns hardly vote as the groundswell of opposition to mainstream politics is to be found there. Rural areas are more open to political participation if one takes voting percentages as a proxy for accepting mainstream politics, however crude that may be. In contrast, the security situation is neatly reversed: strong in cities but very weak in rural areas with forests and orchards. It is not surprising that virtually all political workers live in cities—they are hardly able to go back to their villages—but their arena of action is rural. Ideological resistance to the Idea of India is to be found in the bazaars and merchants of urban areas; less so among farmers in the hinterland.

These are accumulated wages of mistakes that New Delhi has made since Independence. It maybe hard to believe but once upon a time Kulgam was a Left stronghold. It continued to elect a CPM MLA for a very long time. Even now one can see youngsters sporting Che Guevara T-shirts. But the Left, or whatever remains of it, is despondent and insecure. Kulgam today is a hotbed of Islamist militancy on the one hand and, on the other hand, a quiet, but far more potent, proselytising drive of the Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir (JEIK), an organisation that does not believe in ‘normal politics’. The last time it backed Mufti. She thought she was using JEIK but it was the Islamist group that needed her to be in power and she won hands down. This time, she is on her own and in deep trouble. How did this ‘extra-parliamentarism’ of sorts come about?

“You should ask your leaders,” says the politician in Nadimarg. “The Left gained a foothold in Kulgam in the wake of land reforms championed by the late Sheikh Abdullah. But then, the Government of India feared a ‘red rising’ and to cut the Left to size, it propped up the JEIK. That group immediately went for the Left. Now when the Left has been demolished, JEIK has gone against India with a vengeance,” he adds.

There is no uniformity in the anger against mainstream politics in Kashmir. There are plenty of pockets, especially in rural areas, where there is acceptability for democratic processes

Whatever name one gives to the happenings in Kashmir— alienation, terrorism, or militancy—the mistakes made by India stand out in sharp relief. In contrast to the all-round gloom in Delhi—where Kashmir is considered either a ‘security problem’ or, silently and far more insidiously, a province that should be allowed to secede—there are green shoots in Kashmir. But the tragedy of India’s democratic politics is a double blindness: inability to see these green shoots in the first place and, even if one sees them, unwillingness to do anything about it. In the summer of 2019, the action is in the dusty plains of north India and not in the blooming orchards and mountains of Kashmir.

Mankachar, ASSAM

EVERY TIME SOMEONE COMES TO THE BORDER checkpost in Sahapara, rifleman Vijender Singh of 6th battalion of Border Security Force (BSF) tightens his grip over his weapon. In late March, afternoons are not oppressive in this part of India. A family from Kurigram in Bangladesh is bidding a tearful adieu to its relatives in Mankachar even as Singh and his men and women tell the Indians to wind up the proceedings and step back. The entire process from an exit stamp on a passport to the border gate being clanged shut takes no more than ten minutes. There is, of course, nothing to worry about for unlike in Kashmir, this is a calm part of India. A tiny sliver of territory sandwiched between Meghalaya to its south and to east and Bangladesh on the west, Mankachar was ‘Assam’ only in name for a long time. The only way to reach Assamese mainland was by road to Hatisingmari and then by boat across the Brahmaputra to Dhubri.

Things are changing. Mankachar is now part of a new district, South Salmara-Mankachar. What has not changed is its geography. There is no direct link to Assam and the repeatedly promised bridge to the mainland has been approved by the Union Government just recently. This would hardly matter in any other remote area of India. But here in Mankachar and the lower banks of Brahmaputra something else is at play.

“The message that goes out about Mankachar is very wrong. There is no Bangladeshi infiltration here, at least since the border has been fenced,” says Sujit Bezbaruah, a local observer. “We all—Hindus and Muslims—love each other, brother,” he adds. On the surface this is a correct view and lends credence to the claim that illegal migration from Bangladesh is a conservative ideological prop to scare voters in the Hindi heartland. The fence does say something. It goes up to six kilometres towards Meghalaya and 34 kilometres in the northern direction whence it stops and the Brahmaputra starts. This is also the point where an opening emerges for people from Bangladesh to enter India.

The fact is that no one wants to talk about illegal migration from Bangladesh openly in Mankachar. But in the town’s congested main road a group of Hindu traders end up doing that, however indirectly, when prodded. “Our family has been here for more than hundred years. When East Pakistan was around, business was good and then it went down,” says the merchant who is probably the single-biggest wholesaler in the town. “Since 2014, the security situation has improved considerably. There is no extra police patrolling but the message has gone out that Modi means security. We will vote for him this time as well,” he adds.

This is a bit confusing. If there is no infiltration and if everyone loves each other where does security come in the political equation? “It is not so simple. There may not be infiltration now in Mankachar. But look around, almost all people here are of Bangladeshi origin. The security issue is there whatever others may say,” the merchant adds.

Indian but of Bangladeshi origin is a category that will flummox any census surveyor. But in this edge of India, it is hard to separate one from the other. If legal and ethnic distinctions are complex that does not mean they don’t exist. Much of Assam’s political agony has to do with this blending that is not easy to undo. In far-off Guwahati the desire for filtering outsiders is strong; in Mankachar, there is resignation that it can’t—and in all likelihood, won’t—be done. For security reasons many have chosen to migrate to the mainland. It requires no prizes to guess who.


TWO DAYS BEFORE THE BASTAR LOK SABHA constituency went to vote, Maoists in this forested fastness of east-central India blew away Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Bhima Mandavi.

The Mandavi episode says something about the unique confluence of events in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division that repeatedly leads to disasters. In certain respects the killing of the BJP legislator has parallels with the Darbha Valley incident six years ago in May 2013 that nearly wiped out the Congress party’s leadership in the state.

In Mankachar, there is no ideological issue for democracy. If anything, the pr0blem is one of outsiders being a major influence in Assam's democratic affairs, leading to a very different problem: one of the political loyalty of migrants

In both incidents there was prior information about the possibility of a Maoist strike. In Darbha, the state’s press had continuously reported about the large concentration of Maoists in the valley and in the zone that is contiguous to Odisha. Nothing was done at the administrative level to prevent politicians from using that route.

Something similar was at play in Mandavi’s case. It is well- known that Maoists are usually present at local festivals, one of which the legislator was attending. These in-the-crowd members can then alert an ‘active squad’ that is present nearby. All this is common knowledge among people in the area. On that fateful day, the legislator did something that was foolhardy: he gave up his extra security detail. If that was not enough, there was no road opening party to give a green signal about the path ahead being secure.

There are many routes from Nakulnar, a hamlet in Dantewada district, to Bacheli, a mining town. Mandavi was traversing between these two points when he met his grisly fate. Instead of taking the ‘normal’ route, he decided to take a shortcut. Anyone who has seen the route knows it is a death trap if Maoists decide so. Apart from the fact that it is a thickly forested area where one cannot see beyond 200 odd metres from the road, there are plenty of features that mark it out to be ambush-friendly. In this part of Chhattisgarh, trees along the roadside, large anthills and curious humps on the road are markers of deadly trouble: the former are ideal hiding places for Maoists and the misshapen road alerts one to the possibility of a mine. But when one traverses these roads time and again, it dulls one’s senses to sinister possibilities.

The officer in charge of the police station at Bacheli had warned Mandavi not to use that route. But to no avail. When he was just two-three odd kilometres from Nakulnar, his vehicle was blown to bits near Shyamgiri village.

These may seem like mundane details of a road trip gone bad. But in a politically challenging zone, it is hard to separate administrative fact from political reality and the latter from freezing of faith in democratic processes. The strange part of it all is that everyone is aware of how all this pans out. Just two days ago, at a ‘conference’ the local Maoist commander Sainath had warned that Mandavi along with other local politicians such as the Salwa Judum leader Avdhesh Singh Gautam would be eliminated. The slain BJP man had been alerted about this.

“I never got along with him [Mandavi]. But a month or so before he was killed, I met him and he told me, ‘bhai this may very well be the last time you’re meeting me. Who knows about the future’,” a local political observer in Dantewada tells Open. One could call this one of those casual conversations so common in the Hindi heartland. But it could also be construed as a foreboding of something bad.

In the weeks since the killing, Maoists are back on the arterial roads from where they had been pushed back during the sustained area domination exercises by security forces for some years. It is too early to call this a failure on part of the new government. But the initial hope from a new government for change, one that was positively inclined about ‘peace by talking’ with the insurgents, has been dashed for now. It is not a usual political situation where blame can be pinned. It is quite obvious that while Maoists were in favour of the Congress during the Assembly election season last year, they are not so anymore. As for the Congress government, it is understandable that they want to eschew a security-dominated approach to bring peace in Bastar. The trouble is they face an adversary that holds the ground and will only relent on its terms. Even for a Left-leaning government that is a hard upper limit for compromise. The result? Things are likely to get worse for normal politics in Bastar. In a low- population density, heavily forested area, the ideological and physical frontier for democracy continues to recede.

The Boundary Problem

THE STRATEGIC ANALYST EDWARD LUTTWAK once described the foreign policy behaviour of great powers as akin to autism. There is simply so much urgent domestic work to be done that foreign policy gets attention only during a crisis. What Luttwak said applies to the external orientation of large nation-states but it also describes the internal workings of Indian democracy.

In the first week of May the talk in Delhi is all about the hawa or the direction the current election is taking. The maximum amount of analyst attention is devoted to the large states of the Hindi heartland that can make or break the fortunes of Narendra Modi and the BJP. Everything is about how to make Modi win or how to defeat him. Kashmir, Assam and Bastar—accounting for a mere 22 seats—are not on anyone’s horizon. At a practical political level, of course, this does not matter. Unless the overall parliamentary contest is very tight, these are places that are designated as trouble spots and of little interest for democracy. They are the domain of the security establishment.

Of all the places where the boundary problem shows up, Bastar is the place with maximum dislocation between the two poles. It is one area where both liberal and radical democratic visions have no answers

Should this matter for India, even in theory? Political scientists have for long debated on what they call democracy’s Boundary Problem. In simple terms, the issue is one of deciding who should be included and who should be excluded in the demos—or the constituency—when democratic decisions are made. This formulation of the question was made by the Oxford political theorist David Miller. But the problem is quite old and has attracted attention for a long time. In simple terms, what comes first: democracy or the unit within which it is practiced? In India’s case, the latter is clearly the Indian nation-state. Do they fit together tightly?

There are two variant answers: liberal democrats take ideological and physical boundaries for granted; radical democrats are always on the lookout for any dislocation between democratic practice and the boundaries of democracy.

What Kashmir, Assam and Bastar show is a considerable dislocation between the two. In Kashmir, ideologically, the room for democracy has receded rather badly and the political system has done little to fix the recession. Take the current elections for example where everything has been reduced to a binary: for Modi or Anti-Modi. This reduces even the most complex problems to a simple duality. As a result, vexed issues such as demographic distortions in Assam; political alienation in South Kashmir and the virtual political black hole that is Bastar continue unresolved. Perhaps it requires a different kind of politics. Electoral politics that is heavily weighted in favour of large states can do little in terms of a solution.

If anything, there are acute differences within the system about a solution. In Anantnag, one can see posters that highlight Congress party’s promise that it won’t allow anyone to repeal Article 370, the special Constitutional provision that first erected a barrier between local and national politics. The liberal solution—one that many in Delhi favour—is to give more autonomy to the troubled state. That will end the restiveness there but it will permanently create an enclave psychology always viewing Kashmir as distinct, if not separate from India. Militarily, India won’t let the province secede; democratically, it is unlikely to become Indian. But equally, the more radical democratic option to keep the electoral machinery well-oiled but also pursue a security-dominant solution has led to some spectacular mistakes in Kashmir. Does Indian democracy have a solution for its ‘reverse demos problem’, where a people don’t want to belong? If the turnout figures for the Anantnag parliamentary constituency are anything to go by, there are reasons for cautious optimism. There is no uniformity in the anger against mainstream politics. There are plenty of pockets—especially in rural areas—where there is acceptability for political processes. This leaves open the space for enlarging mainstream politics. The trouble is finding the right political participants. Here lies the source of most political mistakes: unless the Constitutional imbroglio around Article 370 is resolved, the quality of political participants will remain poor. It is a simple matter of incentives: if politicians know they are ‘essential’ to India and cannot be held accountable, venality is a foregone conclusion. This remains the trickiest zone for Indian politics, impervious and acutely sensitive at the same time.

In Mankachar, there is no ideological problem for democracy. If anything, the problem is one of outsiders being a major influence in Assam’s democratic affairs, leading to a very different problem: one of political loyalty of migrants. There is no credible answer to the question as to why a person who migrates from country X to Y for economic reasons should pledge his loyalty to Y. Here again, the liberal and radical democratic conceptions are very different. For liberals, this question is meaningless; for radicals it questions the very foundations of the unit in which democracy is exercised. It should surprise no one that liberals with some influence in one of India’s unelected institutions are dictating a ‘solution’ in this remote corner of Assam. There is democracy for sure but one can no longer be certain about the survival of Indian identity. Much like the silt in Brahmaputra, it is now impossible to filter out who is non-Indian here. Unless, of course, the political executive decides to ruthlessly make a distinction between illegal migrants and Indian citizens. A fine enough sieve can make the political distinction but the question is one of expending political capital to do so. One can ask if the party at the conservative pole of Indian politics will pursue the matter to its finale. Again, there is no clear answer.

When former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Maoism as the gravest threat to India’s security, the assertion was taken as a grim reminder of the challenges Indian democracy faced. After more than a decade, it is clear the problem has not gone away and has only heightened in intensity. Of all the places where the Boundary Problem shows up, Bastar is one with maximum dislocation between the two poles. It is an arena where both liberal and radical democratic visions have no answers. Liberal democrats toy with talks in a bid to make Maoists see the charms of normal politics; the latter view it as corruption. Sooner or later, disenchantment sets in and an unhappy recourse to armed options ensues. The second such cycle has just begun. Viewed together, these are zones of disenchantment to which there are no solutions, yet.

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