Srinagar: By Sunday evening, 10 March, the mood on Gupkar Road, Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) power street and home to the Abdullahs, the Muftis, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami and the governor Satya Pal Malik, had turned downbeat. Though Omar Abdullah was out in Delhi, probably negotiating a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, the other leaders were closeted with aides to discuss the shock decision of the Election Commission of India (ECI) deciding against holding the Lok Sabha and assembly elections simultaneously.

Omar and Mehbooba Mufti, whose parties National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), respectively, dominate Kashmir’s unionist camp, were “fairly assured" the elections would be timely and simultaneously. Early elections, they hoped would help devote time on improving the state’s economy, which has been in a perpetual slump since the 2014 floods.

After the Mehbooba-led Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-PDP alliance crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions in June 2018, the general perception was that Omar would end up being the new chief minister of India’s most sensitive state. “I think there was at the last moment, a second thought," one key Omar aide said. “But I do not know why."

Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, PDP youth leader, and Mehbooba’s aide added: “The BJP sees Kashmir from its vote bank politics. They held panchayat polls because they wanted to install their man in Srinagar (mayor Junaid Azim Mattu). Now they want Lok Sabha polls because they are keen to have favourable results. The party has already taken over the state government through the governor."

BJP’s state unit was against the idea of simultaneous polls from day one. That said, the central government was initially in favour of simultaneous polls because it was apprehensive that Kashmir’s traditional lacklustre attitude towards Lok Sabha polls could end up being embarrassing. The only way out was to hold simultaneous polls because involvement in assembly elections could improve the overall tally. This stand was unchanged till the Pulwama attack, people familiar with the matter insist.

NC, PDP under pressure

Unlike other Indian states, the desperation for elections in Kashmir’s political class is not about seizing power alone. The entire unionist camp is facing a “disempowering phase". All of a sudden, they have started not mattering at all. Informally, the leaders of all the mainstream parties say their suggestions are being taken with a pinch of salt and they are increasingly being dubbed as “part of the problem". After the fall of the BJP-PDP alliance, Kashmir’s unionists see their narrative evaporating. “We are under BJP’s direct rule. For the first time, Jammu and Kashmir has a governor who even thinks he is the chief minister," PDP ideologue and former minister Naeem Akhtar said. “The governor has blurred the lines between party interest and constitutional position," he added, regretting that “overt and covert muscular policy" is the only response to whatever happens in Kashmir.

In wake of the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Kashmir’s oldest socio-religious party, the NC and the PDP were publicly rebuked by the governor. He even said his government will treat them at par with anti-nationals. This was quickly followed by finance minister Arun Jaitley who said the two parties have a “dangerous" agenda.

The frustrated leadership of the NC and the PDP was keen to get into polls to halt the entire process that, they believe, has undone a lot in past nine months after President’s rule. They say they are facing a peculiar situation, which is an outcome of Delhi’s direct rule. “We expected people would vote not because they love elections but because they are scared of the situation they stand forced into," Parra said. The chief insecurity is the feeling that the BJP is enforcing its agenda on Kashmir and rediscovering the Ek Vidhan Ek Pradhan (one Constitution, one prime minister) mantra of the 1960s era.

While doing away with Article 370 is impossible, the political parties believe that the BJP can tinker with Article 35(A), which protects the demographic identity of Jammu and Kashmir. They made one such bid, effortlessly. In the penultimate cabinet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recommended to the President—obviously on the suggestion of governor Satya Pal Malik-led State Administrative Council (SAC)—an amendment in the Presidential Ordinance of 1954. This presidential proclamation is considered the soul of the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution and Article 370. Article 35(A) is also part of this presidential order.

The amendment brought certain changes to the reservations of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and brought them up to date with the central government norms, apparently an innocuous intervention. Legally, any constitutional amendment can take place if the government—an elected government—makes a recommendation. In this case, governor Malik, like Jagmohan of 1990, has made the move.

“The centre was experimenting with the idea of triggering an intervention," one former BJP-PDP minister said. “It was just the discovery of the route, so the next level is (used) next time."

A fractured Kashmir

The two established political parties see a continuation of the status quo as a Sword of Damocles hanging over their very existence. Almost half of Mehbooba Mufti’s cabinet has deserted her party. Off late, efforts to create a new, or a few more, stakeholders in Kashmir is being seen as BJP’s attempt to fracture the Kashmir mandate to a level where it plays second fiddle to Jammu’s consolidated vote bank. Jammu votes en masse either for BJP or the Congress.

Kashmir’s political landscape is hugely fractured. The ideological base has split the space between separatists and unionists. Once it was the NC alone, then the Congress started getting in. Finally, the PDP emerged as an alternative to the NC. Now Sajad Lone is attempting taking his Peoples’ Conference (PC) to a new level.

Shah Faesal, Kashmir’s first IAS topper who recently resigned and joined politics, launched his political partyJammu and Kashmir People’s Movement on Sunday. That is in addition to various small stakeholders already retaining their political fiefs. The newest in the political grapevine is the BJP is planning to create a new political party for Gujjars and Pahadi (Muslim) population. “Why are new political parties emerging more in Kashmir than in Jammu," Omar Abdullah recently asked at a meeting in Srinagar.

In fact, the feeling is that this Lok Sabha may exhibit the “changed politics". Three political parties could end up controlling the three belts that marked Kashmir’s medieval administrative division—Kamraz (North Kashmir), Maraz (South Kashmir) and Yamraz (Central Kashmir).

Political parties do see changing fortunes in delayed assembly elections. “State BJP was against the simultaneous polls because it did not want two electronic voting machines in a booth where the voter would decide the fate of a member of Parliament on basis of the performance of the local member of legislative assembly," one senior NC leader said. “The party also wanted the disinterest towards Lok Sabha to play in its favour as only committed cadre will vote."

But state assembly elections under a BJP-led central government can have, as one political leader said, “an element of manufactured consent". Kashmiri separatist created a boycott of polls as a tool of protest. An election later, the unionists literally used it to their advantage. Normally done at micro-levels, they would somehow contribute to the boycott in pockets of opponent’s influence. In 2018 fall, the BJP used this tack to its advantage in municipal body polls (it swept peripheral municipal bodies, including nine in restive South Kashmir where migrant Kashmiri Pandits filed papers and were declared winners unopposed).

Pulwama aftermath

It is not statecraft, but a tense situation on the ground is pushing the political class to chase an elusive assembly election. Kashmir has been in a state of serious security crisis for a long time and the chain of events that the Pulwama car bomb triggered did push India and Pakistan closer to war. While diplomacy averted the crisis on the border, the hinterland is simmering continuously.

Post attack, the counter-insurgency operations have killed 18 militants. The National Investigation Agency (NIA), currently investigated the bombing, has launched Kashmir-wide operation to investigate terror funding. Along with the income tax department, it has raided scores of places and attached a number of properties. The investigations are expected to take time. The outcome may offer details about the characters behind the major attack. But is the national investigator also looking at the evolution of Adil Dar (the perpetrator of the attack) from a school drop-out to a suicide bomber?

Attending the wreath laying event of the slain Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Srinagar, home minister Rajnath Singh announced only two decisions—withdrawing security cover to separatists and halting civilian movement on roads when convoys are moving.

Two days later, the withdrawal of personal security started. It was apparently felt at the home of Kashmir’s chief cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, whose family remained protected after his father Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq was assassinated by militants in May 1990. Umar is part of the separatist triumvirate, the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) that has literally replaced the broad Hurriyat Conference. His JRL colleagues Syed Ali Geelani and Yasin Malik lack any security cover. Later, the government withdrew or downgraded personal security of 173 more people.

Days after dozens of youth volunteered to secure Mirwaiz, NIA raided his Nigheen home and took almost everything—from laptop to personal phone and the entire internet broadband set-up. Now he has been summoned to Delhi and is unwilling to move. His counsel has written a detailed letter offering every cooperation as long the investigations are done in Srinagar. The trade and civil society has cautioned against his summoning.

Road domination

Within days after the attack, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) announced free air travel to the paramilitary men coming to join their duties or moving out of Kashmir. At the same time, the government gave security forces convoys first right to use the road. This is having an impact on citizens’ movement.

The partly upgraded Jammu-Srinagar highway’s Kashmir patch was seen as a new runway that had shortened distances. After the home minister gave the security forces first right to move, Kashmir has gone back to 1990s when insurgents had destroyed key bridges on major highways to enforce immobility. Now everything is intact but not mobility. Scenes of acrimony have started getting onto social media. Tensions are on the rise.

The counter-insurgency grid has started exercising the “complete freedom" and resumed the 1990s hallmark of frisking and questioning every person who moves on a road near a garrison. They are now reportedly moving from door to door in South Kashmir, literally head counting and profiling families and collecting every detail about the members, including Aadhaar numbers. Even phones of youth are being scanned. This is in response to massive use of social networking sites by youth to report events and record them or to react to the emerging situation. For the last more than two years, Kashmir’s major newsbreaks came from “citizen" journalism.

Finally, the Jamaat ban is seen as a major blow to the process of reconciliation within Kashmir. So far, 170 of its leaders have been arrested, some of them actually moved out of Kashmir to jails in Jammu. Remember, the party that has been working in the fields of social work, especially education, and politics for a long time. It contested the elections since 1972—incidentally the first time for Lok Sabha—till 1987. It has distanced itself from militancy as well as Geelani-led Tehreek-e-Hurriyat long ago.

All these developments have created a fear psychosis. “Every morning, I leave home for office I keep praying that nothing untoward should happen," a middle rung officer, deployed in North Kashmir said.

Every crisis comes with its flip side. Kashmir that was off the front pages and the TV screens for long is back in the news.

Masood Hussain is editor, Kashmir Life.