The encouraging 71 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly poll plus the violence-free atmosphere in which the election campaign is being conducted is a thumbs-up for Indian democracy. Whether the active engagement of voters with the democratic process was a result of widespread anti-incumbency will be known once the votes are counted on December 23. In the absence of opinion and exit polls, the analyst is obliged to rely on media reportage and anecdotal evidence. These indicate three broad developments. First, it is likely that the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his feisty daughter Mehbooba Mufti will be the principal gainer in the 46 seats of Kashmir. It is entirely possible that the National Conference led by chief minister Omar Abdullah and his Congress ally may experience a total rout in the Valley. Second, it seems that the fear of an ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party and the possibility of a chief minister from the Jammu region have motivated many of those loosely associated with the parties of the Hurriyat Conference to break ranks and participate in the voting. Finally, it appears that the BJP has made huge inroads in the state where it won three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the general election. The BJP’s gain in Jammu will primarily be at the cost of the Congress and NC. In addition, the BJP has forcefully registered its presence in Ladakh and may even be in the running in six constituencies in the Kashmir Valley.
The spatial distribution of seats in the 87-member J&K Assembly does seem to negate the likelihood of the BJP achieving its 44-plus target unless, of course, it wins every seat in Jammu and Ladakh and score surprise victories in the six seats of the Valley. However, regardless of the scale of its performance, there is no doubt that the party has injected a new dimension in state politics. A reporter from Delhi who toured the Kashmir Valley told me of her astonishment over the fact that BJP candidates were actually canvassing for votes in Muslim-dominated localities: “A few years ago they would have run the risk of being attacked, even shot.”
There are some who attribute the non-hostility to BJP campaigners to the good work done by defence personnel during the devastating floods a few months ago. Others suggest that, like the rest of India, there is a willingness to give the Prime Minister a chance to repair the economy and reinvigorate India. I personally found it interesting that Ms Mufti chose to highlight the importance of smart cities in her campaign while berating the NC-Congress coalition for misgovernance. This is not to say that the familiar alarmism over the BJP repealing Article 370 and effecting a demographic transformation of the state were absent. Certainly the Delhi media did its bit to prey on imaginary insecurities. Yet, what is interesting is that the BJP’s all-too-familiar position on the complete integration of J&K in the Indian Union did not generate an outpouring of Islamic identity.