Time to announce assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir is close

Harsha Kakar
The Lok Sabha elections are completed, the Government sworn in and business back to normal. J and K as usual would be in the limelight for many reasons. Firstly, the promises made by the BJP in its election manifesto, secondly, elections in the state are due, thirdly, the Amarnath Yatra, scheduled to commence shortly and finally, its ongoing terrorism, active Line of Control with Pak and Line of Actual Control with China.
The Government stated amongst its election promises to remove articles 35A and 370 from the state’s constitution. The intention was to merge J and K with the rest of the country, removing barriers which exist in its development, as with these laws, investments have been low, resulting in reduced opportunities to the youth, adding to their frustration.
The announcement of this election promise caused panic in Pak, forcing it to jump into the fray asking the government not to tamper with the existing status. Pak can do nothing but cry and remain ignored, as they have been all these years.The decision would have to be taken by India, however, how far would the government be able to go, with the courts having their say, remains to be seen.
It also created fear within valley based political parties, which began using this election promise as a means of dividing the population and building an anti-India chorus. The fact that for decades they ignored development and preferred an undeveloped region with uneducated masses, solely as a political base has been ignored. They are hoping to exploit this further in the coming days.
Engagement with the valley, to reduce tensions and create an environment of peace would be a priority in any case for the new government. The combination of Amit Shah in MHA and Rajnath Singh in the MoD would push for this.Presently, the only element interacting in the valley with the local population are security forces, which conveys a wrong message. For changing this, it would need a clear strategy as earlier ones never gave desired results.
Governments have attempted soft and hard approaches, neither of which have proved successful. The increased investigation by multiple agencies into money laundering and hawala to fund terrorism and violence has given some positive results, reduced funding and isolated the separatists. The re-opening of cases against ex-militants, turned political figures, has enhanced trust on the Government and created fear within separatists, whose influence is on the wane. They have been compelled to turn those whom they considered as traitors to their cause, Zakir Musa being an example, into hero’s only to display their relevance.
Security in the region is reasonably under control. Youth joining militancy has witnessed a drop, infiltration down, and accurate flow of information has led to regular elimination of existing militants. The figure has already crossed100 this year, 25 of whom are foreign militants. Pressure on Pak, including likely blacklisting or remaining on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as also fears of Indian retaliation has forced it to control its state sponsored terrorist groups from pushing terrorists in and attacking security forces. How long would the pressure remain is yet to be seen.
The Valley has lacked strong political outreach in all government strategies. The reason is fear pervading amongst politicians on account of existing terrorism and occasional targeting of political workers. Thus, they avoid interacting with the masses. No political leader has attempted to explain that removal of the two articles,as promised by the BJP, would in no way impact the status of the region but only open doors to development.
Legally, all residents of J and K are permitted to procure property anywhere in the state. However, there has never been any movement of population from either Jammu or Ladakh to the valley. All movement has been in the reverse direction. This would continue even in the future.
The Lok Sabha elections gave a clear mandate. All the three seats in the valley were taken by the National Conference (NC), while the other three were with the BJP. J and K specific political parties had for the first time concentrated their efforts only in the valley and on a single plank, defending article 35A and 370. Hence, they either refused to participate South of the PirPanjal or North of Zojila as a separate party or were routed wherever they attempted. Even the candidates they supported were unacceptable to the populace. This has polarised the state as never before.
The percentage of votes indicated that seats in the valley, in state assembly elections, would not be the prerogative of the NC but would be split between the parties of the region, each seeking to grab a few. This mandate and ideological disagreements within these parties would ensure that they cannot combine to form a government. Some of them would be forced to ally with a non-valley political party.
The BJP would most likely retain bulk of the seats in the region south of the PirPanjal as also in Ladakh as its vote percentages in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections indicated. This could make it the single largest party in the state and could lead to an environment where it may need limited to no support to form the next government.
The successful conduct of the Lok Sabha elections, despite low polling in some parts of the valley, has showed that influence of the separatists and militants is receding. Calls for boycott were largely ignored as also there were low levels of violence. Hence, the situation appears ideal for announcing elections in the state. With a government of choice in place in the state, the centre would possess the leeway to change policies for the betterment of the population and enhance outreach with the local populace.
The Government should on priority consider the existing environment and request the Election Commission to announce elections in the region. The only stumbling block is the forthcoming Amarnath Yatra which concludes on 15 Aug, during which the government may be unwilling to conduct electioneering.
Thus, ideal would be the announcement of conduct of elections towards the end of the yatra, which would enable the government to retain additional security forces deployed for the security of the yatra, till the conclusion of elections. It is better to strike while the iron is hot than to delay and let the environment reverse.
The author is Major General (Retd)