Kashmir's future hangs in balance after state polls

Two main opposition parties Tuesday continued to debate a new government.

It was one of the freest and fairest – albeit bloodiest – state elections in Indian history, with voter turnout surprising both skeptics and optimists.

For many Kashmiris, these elections, which ended last week, were more than the selection of a state parliament. They were also a test of India's sincerity in allowing Kashmiris to speak their minds at the voting booth – even if it meant the dismissal of the very pro-Indian National Conference party (NC), a leading power in state politics for decades.

But now citizens of this wartorn state – which India and Pakistan have fought three wars over – are waiting to see what India will do for an encore. The worst thing, people here say, is for the central government in New Delhi to do nothing at all.

"If they don't come to the negotiation table then the Kashmir issue can become a very dangerous flash point – a nuclear flash point," says Shabir Shah, leader of the Jammu Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, a separatist group based in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital.

Although these elections did not address what many Kashmiris feel is "the central issue" of Kashmiri self-determination, political observers say they were a crucial step toward lowering the temperature of a 13-year insurgency that shows no sign of waning. The insurgency itself is the result of ill feelings after then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government rigged the election in favor of pro-Indian candidates and against separatists.

The cost of that rigged election has been extraordinary. More than 36,000 people have died since, and India must still maintain anywhere from 300,000 to 450,000 troops and paramilitary forces in the state to control a half dozen Pakistani-supported foreign and indigenous militant groups.

Elections in neighboring Pakistan last week, in which a coalition of Islamic parties made significant gains, could also embolden Pakistani-based militant groups. This in turn could put pressure on both India's top leadership and on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to seize the moment before religious extremists in both India and Pakistan seize it themselves.

Observers say the future of the state will be decided in the next few months. "All these elections are just one step toward a new politics in Kashmir," says Kanti Bajpai, political analyst at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Nothing much will happen in the first few months, but watch what happened in the Pakistani elections. If it goes really bad for [Mr.] Musharraf, under the newly elected parliament, he may try to shift the problem to us and take attention away from his problems at home."

Negotiations continued Tuesday between two main opposition parties, Congress and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), to decide who will lead the new coalition government. Neither party has enough seats to run the 87-seat state assembly on its own. Despite defeat, the NC reasserted itself Monday as a contender for ruling the government.

Leaders of the opposition say they have only a few months to prove their sincerity to the voters and to the estimated 3,000 militants fighting for Kashmir's separation from India.

"There must be a stable government that brings economic relief to people and helps resolve the Kashmir problem through dialogue," says Ghulam Hassan Mir, a senior PDP official who is likely to have a senior position in the new government. "If efforts are made in that direction, then militants will ... give us some time."

While voter turnout exceeded expectations, more than 50 percent of the public boycotted the elections, indicating that separatist sentiment has at least as much influence among Kashmiris as newly elected officials.

Still, voters across the state were in a stern anti-incumbent and anti-New Delhi mood. The once-ruling NC was reduced to 28 seats, down from 57. Even in Jammu, a Hindu-dominant southern region in the state, voters threw out elected officials.

Holding power off and on for the past 55 years, the NC has come to symbolize nepotism, corruption, and political opportunism. Under the leadership of one family, the Abdullahs, it has occasionally called for autonomy – state control over all policies except defense and foreign affairs – but in the end has proved a close ally of New Delhi.

Even those who didn't vote in the state elections – the vast majority in Srinagar – express satisfaction at seeing the NC and Abdullahs go.

"I pay taxes for electricity, but the last government didn't provide it," says Khurshid Shah, the president of the Maharaj Bazaar Shopkeepers Association in Srinagar, who didn't vote. "But if the government changes, then electricity will return, corruption will be less, and maybe, maybe peace will come."

Like most Kashmiris, voters and nonvoters alike, Mr. Shah is encouraged by the promise of the opposition parties to facilitate talks between New Delhi and separatist leaders. But such support could wane quickly, if the new coalition government acts too slowly on its promises.

"The people of Kashmir have no more patience; they want abrupt change," says Ali Mohammad, a social activist and supporter of the PDP. "If there is no big change in the next two or three months, then they will forget the government."

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