Jammu and Kashmir state in India has six parliamentary constituencies: three in the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley (Anantnag, Srinagar, Baramulla), two in Hindu majority Jammu (Jammu, Udhampur), and one in Buddhist-Muslim divided Ladakh. In the big electoral picture for 2019, the contest for these six seats might not appear to be crucial; yet it has emerged as an important part of the shifting narrative for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to reclaim its dominant position in the electoral arena.
The party appeared invincible until two years ago, when it secured a massive victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state and the leader of National Conference (NC) party described this victory as a BJP :tsunami and not a ripple in pond" and tweeted “in a nutshell there is no leader today with a pan India acceptability who can take on Modi & the BJP in 2019. At this rate we might as well forget 2019 & start planning/hoping or 2024.”
Contrary to Abdullah’s predictions, the BJP has witnessed diminishing popularity among the voters, largely due to the demonetization policy decision, resulting in a slowdown of economic growth, and farmers’ unrest. The BJP's recent defeat in the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly polls evidently showed portents of what could be expected of the party's performance in the current national elections. The opposition parties, both at the national and the regional levels, have come alive, coordinating their electoral strategies with the single purpose of defeating the BJP.
In light of these developments, the BJP has been reframing and reclaiming its national narrative. And within that narrative, J&K figures prominently. In order to prepare for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in June 2018, it walked out of the unpopular PDP-BJP coalition government in the border state. The 2015 Agenda of Alliance (AoA), negotiated between the PDP and the BJP, a guiding framework for governance for the two ideologically opposed coalition partners, had neither provided good governance nor was it able effectively to sever the good governance agenda from identity-based issues—both the "azadi" (freedom) agitation in the Valley and the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) agenda in Jammu. The azadi movement received a huge momentum after the killing of the local young militant leader Burhan Wani in 2016. The Valley has witnessed, and is still seeing, a rise in militancy with local youths in increasing numbers taking the lead in Pakistan-sponsored militant groups. On the other hand, Jammu, the BJP’s major constituency, remains dissatisfied with the lack of fulfilment of the BJP’s promise of equal development. The beef politics and the Kathua rape (the rape and murder of an eight-year old of a nomadic girl where the right-wing Hindu groups demanded the release of the rapist/murderer) bitterly polarised the Hindu and Muslim communities in the state.
Blaming the PDP for its inability to control violence and radicalization in the Valley while going soft on the separatists, the BJP walked out of the coalition government citing as its reasons the coalition government tying its hands in protecting the larger interest of India’s integrity and bringing the deteriorating situation in the state under control. It freed itself to pursue an aggressive Kashmir policy where security forces wold hunt down militants, where separatists parties and leaders would be banned and where the National Investigation Agency (NIA) would have a free hand, without any interference from its former coalition partner - the soft-separatists - to pursue cases against those separatists allegedly linked to diverting funds from Pakistan to terrorists.
The February 2019 attack in Pulwama in the Kashmir Valley, killing 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and the retaliatory strike in Balakot (inside Pakistan) against training camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) have revived both the image of Narendra Modi as a strong man and reinforced the BJP’s muscular security policy. Under Modi’s decisive leadership, India would "no longer be helpless in the face of terror."
All this has helped the BJP to partially reclaim its narrative, regaining some of the lost support among voters, along with some additional initiatives which include a recent announcement in the budget of planned tax relief to the middle classes, a direct income support for farmers and a constitutional amendment for a 10 percent reservation quota for economically backward upper castes in government jobs and educational institutions.
The BJP is playing out another, different kind of game in Jammu and Kashmir, consequences of which are most serious. One can anticipate increasing communal, regional polarization, the promotion of a hard-core Hindutva agenda in Hindu-dominated Jammu and a renewed assertion of separatist politics in the Muslim-majority Valley. While, to form the coalition government in 2015, the BJP had shelved its position on the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in the AoA (while the PDP likewise stepped back from self-rule and related demands for autonomy), it has now decided to revive its old ideological plank of one nation, one state. Instead of directly attacking Article 370, the constitutional provision giving special and differential status to J&K in the Indian federation, it has zeroed in on the abolition of Article 35A.
Article 370 defines the relationship between the state and the centre. It remains a constitutional agreement between the two levels of government. It is the 1954 Presidential Order (The Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 1954) and the exceptionality Article 35A, and its effective enshrinement as Section 6 of the state’s constitution which give legal and constitutional legitimacy to the state-determined citizenship provisions. It grants the state legislature the right to define special rights and privileges with regard to employment and acquisition of property in the state as well as the grant of scholarship to its state subjects. Thus, the J&K Constitution unambiguously protects its citizens from others to settle in the state and prevents any settlers from acquiring immovable property and public employment.
The BJP has defended its position of doing away with Article 35A via Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s recent blog. He provides three reasons. First, it was erroneously included by a Presidential Notification and it was neither approved by the Constituent Assembly nor was it part of any constitutional amendment. Second, it discriminates against the citizens of India. Third, this provision has economically hurt the people of J&K due to their inability to attract Indian/private investment for the state’s development agenda. It has denied the common citizen of the state the benefits of a booming economy, Jaitley said.
All mainstream parties of the Valley are unanimously opposed to the BJP’s move and have vowed to fight for J&K’s special status. They consider this move by the BJP as bringing into question the identity and integrity of the state. Indeed, NC leader Farooq Abdullah has suggested that India should reopen the issue of accession and deliver on the promise of plebiscite. He said in a campaign rally that Article 370 was a temporary constitutional provision which was to be "abolished" once the people of the state had decided their future through a plebiscite. Similarly, Omar Abdullah asserted that the state would continue to strive for restoration of autonomy and seek a reversal of all integrative measures adopted from 1955 to 1977. PDP leader and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said the relationship between India and J&K will have to be renegotiated if Article 370 is scrapped. These leaders represent the view of the separatists and Muslim citizens of the Valley.
What are the motives behind the BJP stance regarding Article 35A? It knows well that after the disastrous performance of the PDP-BJP coalition government and the army’s heavy-handedness regarding militancy, it has no support in the Valley. It has decided to concentrate on its traditional constituency in Hindu-majority Jammu and on those who supported Modi during the last parliamentary and assembly elections for his development platform in Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh. For the latter, the BJP is asserting its record of fulfilling development goals – some of which, like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a branch of the premier referral hospital at Delhi, in Jammu, are underway. However, it would appear that the BJP has made a dangerous choice to maintain the support base of Hindu-majority Jammu and put security first at the cost of further entrenching Kashmiri Muslim alienation. The BJP, with its reclaimed narrative, might win enough seats to form a national government but, in the process, could lose the Kashmir Valley.
(The author is Professor of Political Science at University of Victoria, Canada. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)