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David Devadas | 19 DECEMBER, 2014

The Rural and the Urban of the Two Horse Race in J&K


Kashmir tends to take people by surprise. So, just as in 2008, many observers did not expect the campaign and the polling for the ongoing elections for a new Jammu and Kashmir assembly to be so lively. If one takes a long view, however, the trends of the past two decades have continued. The proportion of the Valley’s population that has voted has consistently increased in the assembly elections of 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014. Both rural and urban voters have conformed to that general trend, but the proportion of rural voters has in each case been much higher than that of urban voters. So, if 20 to 30 per cent of voters turned out in most rural constituencies in 1996, hardly anyone turned out in urban areas. Last Sunday, the urban turnout was around 20 to 30 per cent, while the proportion of voters in the first (rural) phase this year crossed 70 per cent.

Three possible reasons for the consistent difference between rural and urban voting patterns come to mind. One, rural voters feel the need for roads, water, irrigation, (orchard) markets and other facilities more acutely than urban voters. Two, at least older rural Kashmiris are generally conscious of the transformation in their lives and livelihoods following land reforms between 1950 and 1975 – arguably the most radical in the world outside the Communist bloc. Conversely, city folk have been used to treating the countryside with contempt and might at least subconsciously resent the vastly increased prosperity of the hinterland. (That contempt is reflected in some Valley-based analyses of the turnout of “gullible” voters.) Third, the entire Valley experienced the horrors of counter-insurgency during the 1990s, but rural areas also experienced horrific excesses by militants and, after 1994, by state-backed militants-turned-mercenaries. Having experienced the horrors of chaos, and of being at the mercy of men with guns, rural Kashmiris appreciate the need for a representative to whom they could turn for help and protection.

A key reason for the repressed rural turnout in 1996 and 2012 was fear of militant reprisals. While fear has decreased, faith in the voters’ collective ability to unseat a government has steadily increased since 2012. The result is that most rural voters have bothered little with boycott calls, flood dislocation or the 2008 land transfer controversy. This does not mean these issues have no salience, only that they are treated as separate issues, ones that don’t impinge on the decision to vote.

Thankfully, elections have been relatively fair in this period. In fact, Prime Minister Vajpayee and Chief Election Commissioner Lyngdoh went out of their way to ensure free and fair elections in 2012. Every round of elections until 1972 had been rigged, and so were the 1987 elections. 1987 caused the most resentment, for people had begun to respond and participate by then. During the 1950s and 1060s and even in 1972, Kashmiris had been largely indifferent and in fact knew little about what elections were meant to be like.

Broadly, the 1996 and 2008 votes were mandates of hope, while the 2002 and 2014 elections have been strong rejections of the incumbent. In 1996, many rural Kashmiris were desperate for an end to militancy and counter-insurgency. Caught in a pincer, they had hoped the elections would bring peace and some kind of settlement. During the 2008 campaign too, many voters spoke of hope – this time for jobs and a more stable future. In 2002, on the other hand, citizens generally voted in anger, eager to get rid of the callous insensitivity, non-performance and police brutality of Farooq Abdullah’s government. In 2014, they seem even more eager for a change from the callous insensitivity, non-performance and police brutality of Omar Abdullah’s regime.

So, the fall of this government might be more startling than in 2012. At current reckoning, the coalition partners, the National Conference and the Congress, may win a half-dozen to a dozen seats each in the new 87-member House. It appears to be mainly a two-horse race between the PDP and the BJP, with the former probably ahead.

Both parties should be lauded for generally resisting the temptation to communalize. The PDP has put up a strong fight even in predominantly Hindu constituencies in the Jammu province, such as Ranbirsinghpora and Jammu East, and the BJP has campaigned vigorously across the Valley. Communal polarization had become the norm between 1975 and 1990. Not only did the Muslim United Front communalize the 1987 elections, the National Conference and the Janata Party had already run more-green-than-thou campaigns in 1977. The Congress, which was effectively squeezed out in the process, responded by communalizing the next (1983) elections. It gained seats in Jammu, but that of course was not enough to form the government.

By 1986, the Congress had managed to foist upon Farooq Abdullah the wag-the-dog formula which a cabal of its leaders had designed since the day Sheikh Abdullah returned to power in 1975. Abdullah senior had become a Congress member in February 1975 and was all set to take the oaths of office as leader of the Congress party in the legislature, but that was rearranged at the last minute. Instead of electing Abdullah as the Congress’ house leader, the Congress’ house majority (`elected’ in 1972) was instructed to support Abdullah and his colleague, Mirza Afzal Beg, to assume power as independent members. It was only before the 1977 elections that Abdullah revived the National Conference.

Thereafter, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed led the Congress’ feisty opposition to the Abdullahs. So, after 1986, his prospects were a major casualty of the formula that positioned the Congress as a junior coalition partner of the National Conference – an arrangement tailor-made for backroom operators with commercial and other interests in the state. Mufti left the Congress after that shotgun alliance, the so-called `double Farooq’ accord of `86. He rejoined the Congress after the Janata Dal disintegrated, but left again to found the PDP in 1999.

Fifteen years on, he seems set to emerge with the largest block of seats in the new house. One wonders how recent history would have played out if the Congress had persisted with robustly confident campaigns (like the BJP this year), instead of adopting a cynical view of the state’s Muslims as NC’s proprietary flock.

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