Coalition governments are not a novelty in Jammu & Kashmir. In the 21st century, they are the norm. The last three Assembly elections—in 2002, 2008 and 2014—have all produced fractured verdicts and hung legislatures. The single largest party won less than a third of the 87 seats on all three occasions: the National Conference in 2002 and 2008 and the People’s Democratic Party in 2014. By a curious coincidence, the seat count of the leading party has been identical all three times—28.
Post-poll coalitions were formed to govern the state in late 2002 and end- 2008—a PDP-Congress coalition and an NC-Congress coalition, respectively. In 2002, the NC, despite being the single largest party, was constrained by its membership of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the BJP won just one Assembly seat that year, enabling the PDP to gain power in post- poll alliance with the Congress.
The fissured political landscape of J&K reflects the social heterogeneity of the state. J&K comprises the greater part of the princely state that existed until 1947. That princely state, which formally came into being in 1846, covered vast and disparate territories and was cobbled together by its Jammu-based Dogra Rajput founders through a mix of conquest (Ladakh, Baltistan) and purchases from the British (the Kashmir Valley and Gilgit). In his 1922 book, Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade, the Valley-based educationist CE Tyndale-Biscoe noted that ‘the country of Kashmir, including the province of Jammu, is large and contains many races. The various countries included under the name of Kashmir are separated by high mountain passes, and the people differ considerably in features, manners, customs, language, character and religion’. That such a diverse state—a potpourri of ethnicities, faiths, languages and regions—will produce sharply different political preferences among its population is natural.
The inherent diversity of J&K has been compounded in this century by a major change in the Valley’s politics. The rise of the PDP since the party’s formation in 1999 ended a long-standing situation in which the NC would sweep the Valley’s seats—40 of 42 in 1977, 38 of 42 in 1983, 40 of 46 in 1996. This fracturing of the Valley’s political space, and the replacement of its unipolar electoral landscape by a robustly competitive bipolar one, ended the era of single-party governments in the state powered by massive majorities in the Valley. It made coalition governments inevitable, and opened the door to an enhanced role in the state’s politics for the Jammu region. The greater political equity between the regions is a positive development; the Jammu region’s population of 5.5 million is not that much lower than the Valley’s 7 million.
The big change to the calculus of coalition-making in J&K this time was that the BJP won two-thirds of the 37 seats in the Jammu region (roughly commensurate to the region’s nearly two-thirds Hindu majority). Its kitty of 25 from the Jammu region compares to eight in 1996, one in 2002 (when the party came a cropper after campaigning for ‘trifurcation’ of J&K and statehood for Jammu), and 11 seats in 2008, when it gained from polarisation between the Valley and Jammu’s Hindu- dominated areas in the wake of the controversy over land around the Amarnath shrine. The Congress did even better in the Jammu region in 1983, when Indira Gandhi’s appeals to its Hindu majority netted the party 23 of its then 32 seats. But in 1983, the NC won a clear majority in the Assembly: 47 of the 76 seats (38 in the Valley, eight in Jammu, one in Ladakh). The Hindu consolidation in the Jammu region failed to stop the formation of a NC government in the state led by Farooq Abdullah, which was then toppled by a sordid conspiracy orchestrated by New Delhi a year later.
The birth of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951 coincided with a movement among a section of Jammu’s Hindus ‘for full integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India like other acceding [princely] states and safeguarding of the legitimate democratic rights of the people of Jammu from the communist- dominated and anti-Dogra government of Sheikh Abdullah’, in the words of Balraj Madhok, a leader of the agitation who later rose to be the Jan Sangh’s national president. The ‘full integration’ movement was led by the Praja Parishad, an organisation dominated by ex-officials of the Dogra monarchy and landlords dispossessed by the Sheikh Abdullah government’s extensive land reforms, launched in 1950, which freed hundreds of thousands in the Valley from serfdom and also gave land to large numbers of landless ‘low-caste’ Hindus in the Jammu region. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the southern Jammu districts—very active in post-Partition violence there in late 1947—stood solidly with the Praja Parishad, as did the national Jan Sangh leadership. The party’s founder, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, came to join the agitation in May 1953; promptly arrested by the J&K government, he died while in detention in the Kashmir Valley the following month.
The ‘Ek nishan, ek vidhan, ek pradhan’ cry of the Praja Parishad—that is, opposition to the separate J&K state constitution and flag and the ‘prime minister’ title held by J&K’s head of government till the mid- 60s—has been the basis of the BJS/BJP stance on Kashmir and a central element of its national political platform ever since. Once the BJP moved from the margins to the centre-stage of Indian politics starting in the late 80s, the abrogation of Article 370 featured as one of the three core tenets of its national programme, alongside the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and a Uniform Civil Code. All three were, of course, put in abeyance in the late 1990s once the NDA came into being.
The PDP, for its part, has since its inception based its grassroots politics on advocacy of the human rights of ordinary people in the Valley—hence its emphasis on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Its expansive vision of ‘self-rule’ for J&K goes beyond Article 370—which, it must be noted, has been effectively inoperative since a series of integrative measures were imposed by New Delhi between the mid-50s and the mid-60s— to include porous frontiers and cross-border links with the Pakistan-occupied areas of the erstwhile princely state. While the PDP has steadily improved its tally with each Assembly election held since it was formed—from 16 seats in 2002 to 21 in 2008 and 28 in 2014—this is the first time that the party has decisively emerged as the leading party in the Valley. Although the PDP has aspired to be a ‘J&K’ party cutting across regions and communities rather than just a ‘Valley’ party, it is essentially a vehicle of Valley grievances and aspirations. Its success in the Valley puts it under great pressure to uphold its platform and not follow in the ‘collaboration’-tainted path of the NC.
It is precisely the stark difference between what the PDP and the BJP represent and articulate that gives their partnership its potential for positive change.
That the delicate dance of the PDP and BJP is driven by pragmatic considerations and practical compulsions is obvious. Both parties wanted to be in government. For the PDP, its best- ever performance—albeit short of what its leaders had hoped for—would otherwise be wasted. For the BJP, the election outcome presented an unprecedented opportunity to be in government in J&K, a 68 per cent Muslim state where it has always been a marginal player, and to add J&K to the column of states where the BJP governs either on its own or in coalition. The post-election numbers and equations were such that the key to fulfilling their shared desire lay in each other’s company. As Plato said in The Republic, necessity is the mother of invention.
I argued for a PDP-BJP power-sharing government as soon as the election results became known, in a column for Mint, and made a more detailed case in an ‘Open Essay’ two weeks later. Jammu & Kashmir, a deeply divided state which is in a fragile post-insurgency limbo, can begin to normalise only through a politics of accommodation and compromise. What better example of that than a negotiated modus vivendi—a strategic understanding of forces which have fundamental disagreements— between the pro-India state party which comes closest to articulating the wounded Valley’s yearning for azaadi and the party of Hindu nationalism? It would be a mistake to view the BJP’s success in the Jammu region as a vote for communalism or hardline nationalism—had the masses of Jammu Hindus been so inclined they would not have rebuffed the BJP’s RSS-inspired ‘trifurcation’ and ‘Jammu statehood’ campaign in 2002, when, as now, the BJP was in power at the Centre, nor given the party relatively modest gains in the aftermath of the emotionally charged Amarnath episode in 2008.
Regardless of how power-sharing goes in practice and what it delivers in concrete terms, the modus vivendi is in itself a significant breakthrough. And the talks leading to the strategic bargain are intrinsically valuable, for it means mutual engagement—rather than mutual rejection—of the most hardline Indian position on Kashmir and a perspective rooted in the Valley based on autonomy, dignity and rights. The details are less important, though I argued in my earlier interventions that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, a politician of experience and wide acceptability across the state (including among both Muslims and Hindus in the Jammu region) should become Chief Minister for a full term, and that the BJP should get the Deputy Chief Minister’s post and an equal (50-50) share of ministerial berths, including the most important cabinet portfolios.
The path to normalising and healing J&K is long and hard. The only way of making progress is by adopting the spirit and institutionalising the practice of tolerance, inclusion and wherever possible, accommodation. Here a useful guide is the preamble to the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 1998 in Northern Ireland: ‘We…believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning. The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start…We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships…We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour in every practical way towards rapprochement in the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements.’
It took another difficult decade after 1998 for the Agreement—which combines internal power-sharing in Northern Ireland with external cross-border links between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and cooperative ties between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland— to work out in practice. But the spirit of mutual recognition and accommodation expressed in the preamble eventually prevailed. Since 2007, the power-sharing government has been led by parties who hold strongly polarised views on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of Britain or become part of a unified Ireland.
I noted in my earlier articles in Mint and Open that a PDP-BJP pact would be complex to negotiate and then to operate. Friction is certain and failure is possible. Just as Mufti Mohammad Sayeed needs the goodwill and cooperation of the Centre to run the J&K government, the Union Government’s conduct will be an acid test of the substance of its commitment to ‘cooperative federalism’. It would be a mistake to treat J&K as just another state, and its coalition government on par with those in Maharashtra or Jharkhand. Whether one likes it or not, J&K is a special case requiring highly sensitive treatment.
Nor will an anodyne ‘development’-based or a technocratic ‘governance’-centred approach suffice. The crux of the Kashmir problem is in the politics, and it won’t work to pretend otherwise. Whatever the letter of agreement, shelving political issues or putting them in cold storage won’t make them disappear. The right way—and the only way forward—is the dialectical method of dialogue, a venerable tradition not just in ancient Greece, but also in ancient India.