Changing nature of Party system in J&K From hegemonic to competitive

Dr Rekha Chowdhary
As the state is going through the process of Assembly elections, it would be interesting to analyse the emerging nature of party system. The democratic politics started here with a hegemonic party system in which the electoral space was dominated by a single party with no effective opposition within the Assembly. But over the time, the party politics started changing and some level of competition was introduced. However, as the present electoral scenario clearly reflects, the electoral space has become intensely competitive and as a consequence, highly unpredictable.
One can identify three phases of party system in the state. The first phase of party politics that started in 1951 and continued till the 1972 Assembly elections, was characterised by dominance of a single party and almost a near-total absence of the opposition. During the first Legislative cum constituent Assembly election of 1951, there was the  presence of Praja Parishad in the oppositional space, but the party boycotted the election due to the bulk rejection of nomination papers of its candidates  – with the result that all the seats of the Assembly were captured by the National Conference. The Parishad gave some challenge to the dominant National Conference in 1957 but it could win only 5 seats. Other than these, there were two other members of opposition – one member from the Harijan Mandal and one independent. Rest of the seats were captured by the National Conference. The hegemony of the National Conference continued in the 1962 elections when it captured 70 out of 75 seats of the state. The only opposition that existed comprised of 3 Praja Parishad members and two independents. In 1965, the National Conference was dissolved and merged with the Indian National Congress and in its new Avatar, the party could again dominate the electoral scene capturing more than 80% seats of the Assembly. In 1972, the party’s strength in the Assembly was slightly reduced to 77% but that was mainly due to a large number of victories of the independent candidates (12%). The opposition was still very negligible and weak.
The second phase of the Party politics in the state started in 1977. The high point of this phase was the introduction of the element of some competition and emergence of oppositional space. However, the dominance of the single party was still to continue. What differentiated this phase from the earlier one was that the hegemonic role of the ruling party was over. Though the opposition parties were not in a position to provide alternative to the ruling party, but the electoral space had become somewhat competitive. 1977 was actually a three-cornered contest between NC (that was revived in 1975), Congress and the newly formed Janata Party. The NC was able to maintain its dominance capturing 61% seats in the Assembly, but as many as 24/76 seats (31%) were captured by Janata Party and Congress (Janata Party 13 and Congress 11) Though the Janata Party fizzled out very soon, the competitive element continued.
However, by this time, two more elements were introduced in the party politics of the state. First,  there was a specificity in the nature of party competition within two major regions of the state. Even when the electoral space of Kashmir remained hegemonied by a single party, that is the National Conference; the electoral space of Jammu region had started becoming quite competitive. The hegemonic control of the NC in Kashmir was clearly reflected with 39/42 seats in 1977 and 38/42 seats in 1983. In Jammu meanwhile, the seats were divided among Janata (11), Congress (10), NC (7) and independents in 1977 and between Congress(26) and NC (7) in 1983.
Second, there started evolving an electoral divide on regional basis. While the Janata Party was dissolved very soon, the two remaining parties started having their regional strongholds. While the NC drew its major strength from Kashmir, Congress drew it from Jammu region. The regional polarisation on party basis was clearly reflected in the 1983 elections. The National Conference captured as many as 90% of seats from Kashmir valley (38/42), the Congress captured 70% of the seats from Jammu region (26/37). This trend was to change for some time when these two competing parties entered into an alliance in 1987.
By winning all but four seats of Kashmir region during the 1996 Assembly elections, the NC was able to continue its hegemonic role in that region. Jammu’s electoral space by this time had become more fragmented with seats shared among NC (14), BJP (8), Congress (4), Janata Dal (4), BSP (4), Panthers (1), and Congress T (1) and independent candidate (1).
The party politics entered into its third phase in 2002 when the dominance of the single party within the Assembly was challenged for the first time. The major development during this phase was the emergence of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which fragmented the electoral space of Kashmir. Giving a strong competition to the NC, this party was able to win as many as 16 seats from the valley. The strength of NC was reduced to 18. There were other smaller political parties which also could make their mark –  while 5 seats were obtained by the Congress, 2 by CPM, 1 by JKAL, four seats were won by independent candidates.Jammu’s electoral space was as usual fragmented between the Congress (15), NC (09), Panthers Party (4), BJP (1), BSP (1), DM (1) and independents 5.
What was peculiar about this election was that no party was able to obtain majority in the Assembly. Though the National Conference emerged as the largest party yet the number it had obtained (28) made it difficult for it to form the government. Hence the era of coalition politics was started. This trend continued through the 2008 election as well. Kashmir’s political space continued to remain divided mainly between NC (20) and PDP (19) with others like Congress, PDF, JKDPN and CPM also in the reckoning. Jammu meanwhile, was represented by an assortment of parties including the Congress (13), BJP (11), NC (6), Panthers (3), PDP (2).
Intense competition and fragmented electoral space is therefore the hall mark of the third phase of the party politics. The state has travelled a long way from hegemonic and dominant politics of a single party to a multiparty politics with more than one party competing for power and the power being alternated between one combination of parties and another.
Like the 2002 and 2008 election, the 2014 election is also going to be marked by intensified competition. The region of Ladakh, which had till now remained untouched by this phenomenon has also joined the rest of the state. Apart from the traditional competitors here, i.e., NC and Congress, the BJP and the PDP have also joined the fray here in a big way.
What is peculiar about this ongoing election is the changed nature of stakes of some of the parties. BJP, for instance from the beginning was seen as a Jammu-specific party and PDP was seen as Kashmir-specific party. However, both these parties have sought to change their character as all-state parties. In a bid to lay strong claim to power after the elections, both the parties are also attempting to reinvent their political agendas as well.
Another peculiarity of this election is the entry of the erstwhile separatist organisation, i.e., the People’s Conference. Though this party has been having its presence in the earlier elections as well, but in the form of proxy. This is the first time that the party is entering the electoral fray in a direct manner.