Friday, May 9, 2008

The Political Shifts

The Political Shifts
By Seema Mustafa

Petty manipulations have always complicated the issue and the leadership at the centre must learn that the only real intervention can be through addressing the long standing grievances of the people and institutionalizing the process of free polls and peace in the state.

The jostling for space in Jammu and Kashmir has already begun. Assembly elections are due in October, and the political leaders are positioning themselves for new results and new alliances.

The Jamaat e Islami has announced its decision to boycott the polls. The All Parties Hurriyat Conferece is also not likely to participate with leader Omar Farooq timing a long stay in the United States with the polls.JKLF's Yasin Malik who is now close to Peoples Conference leader Sajjad Lone is also likely to stay away, although he has to make a formal announcement to the effect. In fact political activity is again confined to the predictable: the Peoples Democratic Party, the National Conference, and of course the BJP, the Congress and the other smaller parties. But there have been changes. And these could be significant in the times to come. For instance both PDP's Mehbooba Mufti and NC's Omar Abdullah received a warm welcome in Pakistan under the new dispensation. Mehbooba in particular, had a very successful visit where she met both Zardari and Sharif and even addressed a joint press conference with the former. The photographs and the reports carried prominently by the Pakistan media has irked the Hurriyat no end that has grown to become very possessive about the neighbouring country. And in a rather absurd move, the Mirwaiz met Pakistan prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani to protest against the hospitality accorded to the supposedly "pro Indian" Kashmiri leaders. The Mirwaiz is also planning to visit Pakistan in June where he will take up the matter even more forcefully with the leadership.

Another shift is the clear determination of Mehbooba to actually take over the Hurriyat space in Jammu and Kashmir politics. Apart from positioning herself as the new chief minister, if her party wins the required number of seats or forges an effective coalition after the polls, she has clearly taken over what was the moderate Hurriyat agenda. And in the process added to it in what constitutes a larger appeal. For instance, the PDP campaign is not just for the relief and rehabilitation of victims of human rights violations but also the victims of terrorism. It does not just advocate better relations with Pakistan but is firm on more confidence building measures, and takes the credit for the bus and rail links between the two countries. At the same time Mehbooba Mufti does not mince words in questioning central government policy and has taken a strong position on autonomy.

This is clearly troubling the Hurriyat whose leaders have at best an untested base and except for the Mirwaiz most are confined to their homes or mohallas. The result it has become a statement based organization, with attempts to bring in other leaders into the fold proving futile. The only addition has been Shabir Shah but Yasin Malik and Sajjad Lone have refused to accept the conglomeration as the spokesperson for the state. So has hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani who has refused to compromise with the local leaders or with New Delhi and Islamabad. His relations with the latter soured when the peace talks started in earnest as he perceived these as a sell out by Pakistan.

A third change, although it was expected, is the return of NC leader Farooq Abdullah to state politics. The party was reportedly finding the going tough under son Omar Abdullah who lacked his fathers charisma. So far as the NC is concerned its candidate for chief minister is the older Abdullah who has been touring the state even as he is forging links with the national political parties for a post poll tie up. The NC remains with the NDA at the moment, although Farooq Abdullah has been sharing a platform with the regional parties as well. He is keeping his options open, and while he has not said so his dislike for the Congress is well known.

A fourth change, and this too is significant, is the growing role of the media and civil society in Jammu and Kashmir. Journalists, academics, lawyers and others will play a more active part in influencing public opinion in these elections, and many who had left the state have returned to take up influential posts over the past couple of years. This election will be fought at a level of awareness that was missing perhaps earlier, with the elected representatives doing a great deal to join hands with civil society and push forward an agenda for peace and harmony. The state is actively debating issues of self rule, autonomy, independence with Kashmiris from Muzzafarabad and guests from Pakistan with very few now inclined to boycott the elections. At least at this moment as in Kashmir one incident can completely change the picture from relative peace to violence and anger.

The Kashmir political parties are not particularly keen for pre poll alliances and indications are that they will contest on their own, and then look at post election possibilities. There is a strain between PDP and Congress, with the latter now again reaching out to former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in an attempt to bridge the divide. The two parties in government in the state have been at loggerheads, with snipes and barbs characterizing a highly uneasy relationship.

The central government has done little for the state, except for lofty announcements that mean little on the ground. It is strange that instead of taking advantage of the political confusion in Pakistan to work on Kashmir, the government here decided to opt out and wait for *Islamabad to sort out its problems so that the talks on the resolution of this issue could begin again. It is almost as if the UPA government has decided that Jammu and Kashmir cannot be dealt with by New Delhi, and there is little point in dealing with the problems that had triggered off the alienation in the first place. The Kashmiri leaders admitted that they have little to no contact with the centre with the Prime Ministers round table becoming an aborted reality. The recommendations submitted by the various groups are gathering dust in the files as the government clearly has neither the interest nor the will to implement these and perhaps, radically alter the dynamics of the Srinagar-New Delhi relationship.

Elections in the sensitive border state cannot be seen as the solution. Petty manipulations have always complicated the issue and the leadership at the centre must learn that the only real intervention can be through addressing the long standing grievances of the people and institutionalizing the process of free polls and peace in the state. This can be done by measures to win over the 'hearts and the minds' of the people, and while this is a very tall order now it can still be done. More so as the people of the state are disillusioned with Pakistan and are prepared to review their relationship with India in a manner that ensures them justice, dignity and respect.

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