The party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made significant electoral gains in the troubled region of Jammu and Kashmir, underscoring the Indian leader's desire to seek closer integration of the troubled Himalayan region with the rest of the country.
In results announced today, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 25 of 87 seats in Kashmir, its best showing ever in the Muslim-majority state. But the figure is far short of the 44 seats needed to form a new government. And the BJP failed to win any seats in the strategic Kashmir valley, raising concerns that political affairs and relations inside the state could become seriously polarized, at least initially.
The BJP had campaigned aggressively in Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has been a source of two wars and continuous border tension. Mr. Modi himself held a series of rallies in the state at which he promised jobs, economic development and justice, while his party ran an extensive media campaign, despite being ideologically at odds with most voters.
The biggest winner from the elections, which were phased over several weeks, is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The young party, led by a seasoned, elder political figure, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, took 28 seats, just ahead of the BJP. Since no party can form a government on its own, the PDP is in a prime position to be part of a ruling coalition.
In some ways, analysts say, the results are unsettling for voters seeking political stability and strong government. Some 65 percent of nearly 5 million voters cast ballots, considered a healthy turnout.
Both the BJP and the PDP say they are ready to discuss a coalition government, which would represent a new track for Kashmir. "The option of forming the government, the option of supporting a government and the option of participating in a government are all open," BJP President Amit Shah told reporters in New Delhi.
For the PDP, an alliance with the national ruling party could bring greater financial assistance and development in a place where both are needed. A decades-old insurgency has destroyed much of Kashmir's industry, and mired left a generation of jobless youth; the tourism industry, once a mainstay in a spectacularly scenic valley, is moribund.
"I think we have to consider [the sentiments in] Jammu if we form the government," a PDP spokesperson, Naeem Akhtar, told reporters in Srinagar today. "Our options for [a] coalition are open."
Differing policy stances
However, the two parties are starting from very different positions vis-à-vis Kashmir. The PDP has cultivated an image of a soft separatist party espousing the cause of Kashmiris and Muslims and advocating self-rule for the state, and even opening its borders with Pakistan. The party's platform called for a restoration of Kashmir's original special status and for the revocation of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives impunity to Indian soldiers deployed in Kashmir.
By contrast, the BJP is known for its nationalist agenda and its Hindu fundamentalist roots. Modi opposes removing the military's impunity and his party has taken a hard line against Pakistan.
Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India with a Muslim-majority population. It is diverse in religion and culture. The state is broken up into the 97-percent Muslim Kashmir Valley; the mainly Hindu Jammu region; and Ladakh, bordering China, which has an almost even mixture of Buddhist and Shia Muslim voters.
All eyes are now on Mufti Sayeed, the PDP leader who previously served as India’s first Muslim home minister, to see under what conditions he would form a government with the BJP. Should coalition talks fail, Kashmir may find itself in a precarious place.