Coalition governments come into being in one of two ways. The first route is through a pre-poll coalition. Here political parties combine their resources and votes prior to an election because they judge their joint prospects to be better. Pre-poll alliances can be facilitated by ideological similarity between the partners, but rarely happen for that reason alone. The incentive is usually convergent interests.
The other variant is the post-poll coalition. This is normally in response to an exigency—a fractured verdict and a hung legislature, which means that a government cannot be formed without a post-poll coalition. Post-poll coalitions are, as common sense would suggest, more easily negotiated between like-minded parties which are ideologically and programmatically compatible, or at least not obviously opposed.
On that basis alone, a post-poll coalition government in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would appear implausible. But as I argued in an analysis in the newspaper Mint the morning after the fractured outcome of the 2014 J&K Assembly election became known, such a coalition presents an opportunity to begin healing and normalising J&K—a fragile and divided state. It is also the only way of respecting the preferences expressed by the electorates of the Kashmir and Jammu regions.
I noted in the Mint article that such a coalition would be difficult to negotiate and more difficult to run. The BJP has, since its formation as the Jan Sangh in 1951, stood for the full integration of J&K with the Indian Union and the abolition of the constitutional provision that codified its autonomy (Article 370, originally introduced as Article 306A in 1949). The Sangh Parivar’s declaratory stance on J&K has been consistent since the early 1950s, when it threw its weight behind the agitation for ‘Ek Nishaan, Ek Vidhaan, Ek Pradhaan’ in the Hindu-dominated southern parts of the Jammu region launched by the Praja Parishad—an organisation led by former officials of the princely state’s administration and landlords affected by the Sheikh Abdullah government’s sweeping 1950-1952 land reforms. The Praja Parishad’s slogan targeted the existence of the J&K state constitution and flag and Abdullah’s ‘Prime Minister’ title.
The PDP has, since its formation in 1999, sought to combine articulation of grievances and aspirations prevalent at the popular level in the Kashmir Valley—the reason for its success there in challenging the historically entrenched dominance of the National Conference (NC) —with its commitment to J&K’s place as a unit of the Indian Union. From its inception, the PDP positioned itself as a defender of the human rights of ordinary people in the Valley. Its political stance goes beyond the pro forma defence of Article 370—which in any case has not applied except in theory in J&K for decades, ever since its content was emasculated through a raft of integrative, centralising measures imposed by New Delhi between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s. The PDP has talked about ‘self-rule’ for J&K. In my book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (2003), I noted the popular resonance of the term ‘khudmukhtari’—which I translated as ‘self-rule’—in the Valley. Essentially, the PDP has presented itself as a champion of the Valley’s wounded regional identity and pride whilst participating in electoral politics.
Just over a decade ago, organisations of the Sangh Parivar were clamouring for the dismantling of J&K as a state. Before the autumn 2002 Assembly polls, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) launched a campaign in Jammu city for J&K’s ‘trifurcation’. The call was for the Jammu region to become a state and for Ladakh to be accorded Union Territory status, leaving a rump state in the Valley. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) went a step further by demanding that a fourth entity, a second Union Territory, be created across a swathe of the Valley as a safe haven for Kashmiri Pandits. In Delhi, LK Advani, the-then Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, stated that the Centre favoured maintaining the status quo in J&K. This disclaimer notwithstanding, the BJP campaigned in the Jammu region on the ‘trifurcation’ and ‘statehood for Jammu’ planks. The strategy failed miserably. Just one of the Jammu region’s 37 constituencies elected a BJP candidate.
Back in power at the Centre after a decade—with a majority rather than one-third of the Lok Sabha—the BJP has shifted subtly but significantly on J&K. The trifurcation rhetoric has vanished—appropriately so, since five of the Jammu region’s ten districts have Muslim majorities who want no truck with that kind of politics. Most of the Jammu region’s Muslims are not Kashmiris in the ethno-linguistic sense—they are mostly Gujjars, Bakerwals, Rajputs, Punjabis and Pathans (though there are concentrations of Kashmiri Muslims in Doda, Kishtwar, and pockets of Poonch). But despite the social and political distinctness of most of the Jammu region’s Muslims from the Valley’s Muslims, they do not wish to become a one-third minority in a separate Jammu state. The Hindu-Muslim relationship in the Jammu region is delicate, as the 2013 riots in the mixed town of Kishtwar showed. Likewise in Ladakh, the dynamics of the Shia- dominated Kargil district are very different from that of the Buddhist-dominated Leh district.
The other significant shift was the marginalisation of the Article 370 issue in the BJP’s 2014 campaigns in J&K, both for the Lok Sabha and the Assembly. In the Lok Sabha campaign, as elsewhere in the country, the emphasis was on Narendra Modi and his promise of dynamic leadership with an agenda of development. In the Assembly campaign, this was supplemented by Modi’s attacks on the family-centric parties of the Abdullahs and Muftis, rather than on J&K’s ‘special status’ (which has been effectively inoperative anyway since the 1960s) or stridency on residual Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Modi did not resort to shrill rhetoric even after a militant strike near the border town of Uri in the Valley killed eight Indian Army personnel and three policemen between the second and third of the five polling days.
The PDP was born of a particular conjuncture of circumstan- ces at the end of the 1990s. At that time there was growing realisation in the Valley that the armed struggle ongoing since 1990 represented a dead-end. It had all but destroyed a young generation and moreover spawned a brutal conflict between the Pakistan-backed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and surrendered members of other erstwhile militant groups backed by the security forces. What was left of the armed struggle was increasingly dominated by outsiders, the Pakistani groups Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish- e-Mohammad. In addition to the public’s exhaustion with violence, the founders of the PDP sensed an opportunity in the deep unpopularity of the NC state government headed by Farooq Abdullah which came into office in autumn 1996. They detected an opening for an alternative regional party that would raise popular grievances and aspirations but establish itself by competing in electoral politics, unlike the boycott-prone and bickering Pakistan-influenced conglomerate, the Hurriyat Conference. The PDP joined the list of regional parties formed in the end-1990s, such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra. Starting with a presence mainly in the Valley’s southern districts, the PDP has improved its score with every assembly election—from 16 seats in 2002 to 21 in 2008 and 28 in 2014.
For the end-2014 Assembly election, the PDP focused its campaign on the incompetence of the NC-led government in office since end-2008. The lack of emphasis on the ‘self-rule’ plank, which paralleled the BJP’s strategic near-silence on Article 370, may turn out to be a positive thing—the PDP’s self- rule ideas contain some half-baked elements such as dual circulation of Indian and Pakistani currency across the former princely state. PDP leaders made attacks on the BJP mainly in response to the latter’s over-ambitious chatter of making inroads in the Valley and the hyperbole of Amit Shah’s ‘Mission 44’, purportedly by using the votes of displaced Pandits to win seats in low- turnout constituencies in the Valley in addition to a sweep in the Jammu region. The BJP succeeded in nearly equalling the Congress’ performance in 1983 in the Jammu region (when Indira Gandhi’s aggressive campaigning brought it 23 of that region’s then 32 seats). But a third of the Jammu region’s seats still went to other parties, and the BJP failed to penetrate the Valley. Throughout, the PDP concentrated its fire on its rival for the Valley vote, the NC, correctly realising that the election in the Valley would be dominated by anti-incumbency against the NC-led government rather than any threat posed by the BJP.
A coalition government in J&K involving the NC or Congress would violate democratic norms as well as common sense. The NC has been decisively defeated on its core turf. Its outgoing Chief Minister lost badly in an urban Srinagar consti-tuency and barely scraped through in his back-up rural seat. The party’s tally of 15 seats is short of a total debacle and reflects a late grassroots effort, but it includes Srinagar city constituencies won due to low turnout. The Congress is a marginal force which no other party seems interested in aligning with.
A PDP-BJP coalition government in J&K is an example of what political scientists call a ‘grand coalition’ between the two largest parties, which usually have opposed and even contrasting ideological predilections. Germany has been governed by a grand coalition of the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1966 to 1969, 2005 to 2009, and 2013 onwards. The arch-rivals also currently govern several German states in a grand coalition, including Berlin since 2011. The justification for such cohabitation and cooperation is two-fold: the national interest, and respect for a fractured democratic outcome. It was the same perception of a national interest beyond party politics and ideological divides which led to the ‘historic compromise’ (compromessostorico) in 1970s Italy between the Christian Democrats and the Communists, once the latter party moved away from Moscow’s control and adopted ‘eurocommunism’.
The ‘national interest’ argument for a PDP-BJP coalition government in J&K is obvious. It holds out the prospect of bridging the divide between the Valley’s Muslims and the Jammu region’s Hindu majority in the Union’s most sensitive state. It also holds out the possibility of improving the relationship between the Union and the population of its most alienated region, the Kashmir Valley.
Since 2007, Northern Ireland, the site of a violent conflict from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, has been governed by a power-sharing coalition in which the leading players represent the ‘extremes’: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose central tenet is the maintenance of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein (SF), whose avowed goal is the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. By comparison, the BJP and the PDP don’t disagree on the issue of sovereignty. Neither DUP nor SF has given up its ideological position, but they have reached a modus vivendi—an understanding between forces which differ on basic issues—based on pragmatism and mutual tolerance and an appreciation of what is best for the population of Northern Ireland as a whole. It actually helps that—like the PDP and BJP—the voter bases of DUP and SF are completely different.
A PDP-BJP coalition government would be a modus vivendi between Indian nationalism and Kashmiri regionalism. The appropriate candidate for Chief Minister for the entire six-year term is Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who turns 79 next week. A J&K Congress leader for most of his fifty-plus years in active politics, he has become a wiser politician from accumulated experience. He is rare among Valley politicians in his explicit recognition of the feeling of inequality and grievance in the Jammu region, which is not limited to that region’s Hindus but is shared by many of its Muslims. He might regard such a term as his legacy opportunity. Narendra Modi should also see a PDP-BJP coalition government—a classic example of what political scientists call ‘complex power-sharing’—as a legacy opportunity.
As the second-largest party in seats and the largest party in state-wide vote share—23 per cent to the PDP’s 22.7 per cent— the BJP is entitled to the Deputy Chief Minister’s post and an equal (50/50) share of ministerships including cabinet portfolios. Even as it rides the Modi wave, the BJP has made alliances with regional parties in states—a post-poll alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and a pre-poll alliance with the All Jharkhand Students Union Party (AJSU) in Jharkhand. An accommodation with the leading regional party in India’s only Muslim-majority state might even help its prospects—with Muslim voters and generally—in upcoming state elections in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
What might the legacy of a PDP-BJP coalition government be for J&K? The most divisive slogans—self-rule and Article 370—would obviously need to be downplayed, but that would in itself be a recipe for stasis, not progress. A better scenario for progress would be incremental change based on a series of quid pro quos, in which, for example, the empowerment of the Jammu region is matched by overdue steps such as the rollback of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the Valley.
The Kashmir Valley will have to live with the Indian Union, and the Union will have to live with the Valley. The time to begin cementing that troubled coexistence is now.