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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 17, April 11, 2009

J&K: Elections with a Difference

Sunday 12 April 2009, by Karuna Thakur

The Assembly Elections of 2008 in J&K were one of the most intensely contested elections in the State in terms of multi-cornered contests, number of rallies and the voter turnout. They were so even when compared with the 1977 elections, known to be the first fair and compe-titive elections in the State since independence. The levels of political mobilisation became significantly evident when within a month of the announcement of poll schedule on October 19, a total of 862 political meetings were recorded across the State. Out of these, 406 were organised in the Kashmir division and 456 in the Jammu division. The results no doubt were a big surprise for the political analysts. They were a bigger surprise for the political parties in the State as most of them had expressed their reservations regarding the holding of elections in the immediate aftermath of the Amarnath land controversy. The Congress, with its main support base in Jammu, feared a political fallout as the people of Jammu were angry with the Congress leaders for the manner in which they had handled the issue. The NC too predicted serious international ramifications, whereas the PDP passed a resolution to the effect that political issues needed to be addressed first. The Election Commission on its part was preoccupied with ensuring a respectable voter turnout. The Commission took extra care to protect the right of the citizens to cast votes. It adopted a liberal approach by entertaining driving licenses, permanent account number cards and gun licenses bearing photographs of the voters as substitutes for voter identity cards. Thus, amidst fears of humiliating reverses and poll boycotts, the results of unusually high voter turnout with an equally high number of contestants are bound to make these elections an important case to be studied.

Expressive Political Participation

It is not easy to interpret the voting behaviour of the voters. The act of voting is a complex phenomena which cannot be explained with reference to a single factor. Theories of political participation refer to two basic approaches for studying voting behaviour: sociological and psychological. Whereas the former focuses on socio-economic factors like class, race and status of the voters, the latter attempts to map up the mind of the voter regarding political issues, candidates etc. Though the sociological factors are important determinants of voting behaviour, a decisive impact is made by the dynamic factors falling in the latter category. Millbrath classifies political participation into two types: active and passive. Since political participation entails costs in terms of time, energy and resources, people become active or passive depending upon the extent to which they are willing to bear these costs. He makes a further classification in terms of instrumental and expressive political partici-pation. Whereas the former is undertaken with the specific aim of achieving goals like power, status and influence, the latter is seen as an act of immediate release, or expression of a feeling. The line of argument pursued in this article draws a significant correlation between the antecedent condition of the Amarnath land controversy and the voting behaviour of the citizens as an act of expressive political participation. It was an unprecedented response to an unprece-dented event where people turned active participants to give vent to their feelings. The elections provided a channel for the release of the pent-up feelings of tension and regional discord accumulated in the course of two months of agitation and a latent sentiment of rift carried from the preceding decades.

On various occasions in the past, protest movements against regional biases were witnessed in Jammu. The darbar-move agitation of 1987 was launched against a government order of partial shifting of government offices to the winter capital of Jammu. The Reasi agitation of 1988 was in support of a district status for Reasi. In 1994, the Women’s Right to Permanent Residence and earlier the Resettlement Bill of 1982 led to hardening of the regional stands. In the 1950s the Landmark Praja Parishad agitation opposed Kashmir’s special status which led to the Sheikh’s dismissal and subsequent arrest. However, none of these issues evoked a response comparable to the Amarnath land transfer contro-versy. Two months of sustained agitation over the issue in the summer of 2008 added a new chapter in the agitational history of the region. In terms of its all-inclusive social base, reach and appeal, the response was unprecedented. There are no instances in the region’s history when not only men, women and children courted arrest but infants in prams also became a part of the processions in a singular display of solidarity. The entire course of agitation was defined and directed euphemistically with reference to ‘Aastha’ or faith. Though spearheaded by the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti and backed by various political organisations, the agitation in a short time assumed a dynamic of its own where each household felt compelled not only to join in the protest marches but also provided leadership roles in support of the cause.

The Valley, where organised protests are a ritualised affair, was the first to react to the allotment of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board for construction of temporary structures for pilgrims. For the separatists, hibernating for sometime, it provided an opportune time to activate their ranks. Their calls for protests were soon joined by the PDP and the NC. Anti-India rallies, and cries for azadi plunged the Valley in a state of crisis. The subsequent revocation of the land transfer order in response put Jammu on the boil.

Role of Mass Media

Any perspective on the Amarnath agitation bereft of the critical role played by the mass media, as an agent of shaping people’s political attitudes, is bound to suffer from factual inadequacy. As bandhs had paralysed social life, people relied on newspapers and television to get news on the happenings around. People remained glued to the television screens. The visual media worked overtime to give round-the-clock coverage of the developments. Messages through mobile phones spread like wildfire in Jammu. In the given circumstances, it was hard to remain passive. Instead, hyperactive responses in the form of debates, discussions and opinions in both print and visual media became the order of the day. As the passions inflamed, the administration on August 3 blacked out two local television news channels and sealed the offices of two Hindi dailies. The clampdown extended to the sms services too, which were banned the same night and resumed only a few months later.

It was against the backdrop of complete regional polarisation that the Election Commission of India announced elections in the State. Crises are known to generate extreme political responses of either alienating or intensifying political participation. It would be implausible then to attribute the huge voter turnout to the simple logic of democratic awakening in the State. In the Kashmir Valley, democratic spaces have, no doubt perceptibly expanded over a period of time, yet one has to look for convincing reasons for the blurring of boundaries between voters and non-voters or conversion of passive voters into active ones. Such a phenomena can be explained if not conclusively, then at least with some degree of conviction, with reference to a contigent factor like the Amarnath. The voting behaviour of the people in this case was affected not only by the recognition of the said issue but also by an intense feeling about it. It would be fair to contend that the participatory upsurge no doubt gave an impetus to democracy in the State, but it did so quite inadvertently.

Recourse to a democratic method to express consent, dissent or an emotion is a clear indicator of the trust and efficacy that democracy as a procedure has gained in the Valley. It also underscores the message that if practised with fairness and deliberation they can be potent instruments of redressing grievances. Democratic ethos does not come in a single stroke. It is a slow, arduous process and entails careful cultivation of habits. The processual dynamics have clearly lent a unique character and shape to democracy in the State and Kashmir is taking its own indigenous route to it.

Coalition of Convenience

Contextual variability has been a critical factor in legitimising or delegitimising political accords in the State. A fractured verdict, coupled with the electoral arithmetic, has once again brought the NC and the Congress in a coalition partnership. There is no common minimum programme as the parties claim, the arrangement is based on trust. The rotational system of power-sharing has also been dispensed with. Clearly, a changed context has lent legitimacy to an alliance which in 1987 was widely decried as a ‘cartel’ entered upon by the two parties with a clear design to rig the elections. The alliance also became a precurser to armed militancy which erupted in the Valley in 1989.

The Congress-NC love-hate relationship has been a perennial feature of the State’s politics since independence. The steady understanding between the two took an unsavoury turn in 1953 with Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal and arrest following his call for de-accession. After a long hiatus of twentytwo years. the two parties joined hands under the historic Kashmir Accord of 1975. It was an extraordinary accord in the history of democratic representation where neither the Chief Minister nor his Cabinet colleagues were the members of the Lower House of the State Legislature. An overwhelming majority of the members in legislature belonged to the Indian National Congress who had fought the Sheikh tooth and nail in the preceding years and under the accord, agreed to support him. Mir Qasim, the incumbent Congress Chief Minister stepped down to pave way for the Sheikh to take over as the Chief Minister of the state. The discord between the two surfaced within two years resulting in the withdrawal of Congress support and the fall of the Sheikh Government. The two parties were set on a collision course once again when talks to forge an electoral alliance between them failed on the eve of the 1983 elections. Farooq Abdullah’s elected government was dismissed and replaced with a government of defectors led by G.M. Shah. How long the present coalition will endure would obviously be determined by the contextual dynamics rather than the long-term ideological beliefs of the partners.


As the Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah has started his innings with many advantages. Age is on his side, he has a legacy to be proud of and a partnership with the ruling party at the Centre. Infiltration is reported to be at an all-time low, as is the level of violence. The Hurriyat too has currently lapsed into a limbo. Such political assets may be a cause of envy for many a political aspirant. Yet, one cannot be unmindful of the liability which the Chief Minister has inherited in the form of a regional divide and emotional alienation of the Jammu people. His blistering two-minute speech over the land transfer in Parliament on July 22, 2008 has left a bitter after-taste. He now labours under a moral and political obligation to remove the mistrust as the Chief Minister of the State. In the meantime India can wait and watch for Kashmir not just to celebrate democracy but learn to love it too. n


1. Darbar move is the biannual ritual of shifting government offices between the summer and winter capitals of the State.

2. A series of reverses before the 1967 elections had led to widespread despondency. Some analysts predicted that the elections of that period might also be the last. (Palmer: 1976)

3. The Resettlement Bill, aimed at allowing the residents of the State who had migrated to Pakistan in 1947 to return, was sent for presidential reference by the Supreme Court and subsequently lapsed as the Supreme Court returned the reference without any comment in 2001.


Cummings, Milton C. Jr. and David Wise (1972): Democracy under Pressure: An Introduction to The American Political System (USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, in).

Milbrath, L. (1965): Political Participation (Chicago: Rand McNally).

Palmer, Norman D. (1976): Elections and Political Development: The South Asian Experience (New Delhi: Vikas).

Thakur, D.D. (2005): My Life and Years in Kashmir Politics (New Delhi: Konark).

Verma, P.S. (1994): Jammu and Kashmir at the Political Crossroads (New Delhi: Vikas).

Widmalm, Sten (2002): Kashmir in Comparative Perspective: Democracy and Violent Separatism in India (London: Routledge Curzon).

Dr Karuna Thakur is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Jammu.

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