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BJP-PDP Coalition in J&K - A Mistake

Ambassador Prabhat P. Shukla

The best that can be hoped for is that the inevitable break-up happens before there is any lasting damage done

Mohammed Mufti [L] and Prime Minister Modi [R]

There has been a sense in the air in recent months that the NDA Government under Modi was not delivering on its campaign promises. Perhaps the sharpest expression of this view was on display in the outcome of the Delhi elections, where the rout of the BJP was a clear message to the central leadership. In reply to this sentiment, there was a legitimate counter – that the Government needed time to undo the damage inflicted on the country by the last five years’ rule of the UPA Government. To understand the situation, and to get the right remedies, would require time and deliberation.

Indecision, inaction and deliberation are one thing, however. But when the Government takes a wrong turn, it is no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt, or of the delay. Just such a wrong turn has been taken by the Government recently in Jammu, and this decision will cost the nation in terms of continuing insecurity; it will also hurt the BJP politically. The pity of it all is that it need not have been thus. It was the eagerness that was so much on display that weakened the BJP’s negotiating position.

To begin at the beginning, the results of the elections in J&K, announced on 23 December last year, threw up a decidedly hung Assembly. The People’s Democratic Party emerged as the largest with 28 seats in the 87-seat Assembly; the BJP was second with 25 seats, the National Conference won 15 seats and the Congress ended up with 12 seats; others got the rest, or 7 seats. There are actually 111 seats in the Assembly, as provided for in the J&K Constitution, but 24 of these represent the parts of the Princely state that are under illegal occupation by Pakistan, which are unable to vote.

The state-wide turnout was a little over 65%, a historic high. The BJP drew a blank in Kashmir and Ladakh, winning all its 25 seats in Jammu. In terms of percentage of votes, though, the BJP was in first place, with 23%. The PDP, which got 3 seats in Jammu and the rest in Kashmir, placed second in terms of votes polled, winning 22.7%. The National Conference placed third with a bit over 20% of the votes. The BJP ought to have done better in both Jammu and Ladakh, going by the Lok Sabha voting patterns, and this is something the Party needs to ponder over.

All the same, the final results evidently demanded some coalition building. BJP President Amit Shah declared early in the process that all options were open, though he did not include – at least as reported in the press – the option of sitting in the opposition. The talks between the BJP and the PDP began in January, shortly after Mehbooba Mufti had denied that there would be any coalition with the BJP – calling to mind Bismarck’s sage comment that nothing in politics was certain until officially denied. The talks started amid a chorus of criticism from the Congress and the National Conference, who accused both the BJP and the PDP of compromising on critical issues like Article 370 and AFSPA, among other things. Interestingly, though, there was very little of the secular-communal drivel that used to be dominant until just a few months ago.

The upshot of the negotiations is the Agenda of the Alliance, released to the public on 1 March immediately after the swearing-in of the new Government in Jammu. The new Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, declared that the most important outcome of the Alliance would be the bridging of the mistrust – the decades-long mistrust according to him – between Jammu and Srinagar. If the Agenda is subjected to this test, the results are decidedly mixed – especially as the early moves by the PDP leaders appears more insistently to seek reconciliation with Pakistan, the Hurriyet and assorted separatists, and the terrorists.

The starting point is Article 370. It is quite clear that both Jammu and Ladakh have a view on this that is different from that of Srinagar. However, the BJP has abandoned its commitment on this issue. Prime Minister Modi had called, during the election campaign, for at least a debate on the Article, but even this is not happening. This Article resonates not merely within the State of J&K, but all over India. The steady whittling down of the BJP position on this will entail a definite political cost.

There is also a challenge pending in the Supreme Court to Article 35A, which has been inserted in violation of the Constitution itself. This Article, which safeguards the right of the State of J&K to apply discriminatory rules regarding citizenship rights, is under a PIL challenge, and the Supreme Court had issued notices in August 2014, asking for comments from both the Union and State Governments. The initial deadline was October 2014, but was extended, presumably in view of the then-pending elections in J&K. Now that these are out of the way, it is to be expected that the process in the Supreme Court will be resumed. If this is pursued to its logical conclusion, it will be a severe test of the coalition, since the Union and State Governments would have divergent opinions on the subject – it will definitely break the coalition, if indeed it is heard in the Supreme Court.

For the nonce, the coalition appears to have bought some respite on this issue by allowing the current arrangement to stand undisturbed. But this is no way to bridge the gap between Jammu and Srinagar. The invoking of Vajpayee is disingenuous – and the BJP would be do well to remember that Vajpayee was defeated in the 2004 elections, even though the NDA had given GDP growth rates of 8%-plus.

Such issues, contradictions of a fundamental nature, abound is this coalition. The AFSPA question is another of these. Here again, the two sides have fudged their differences, but this will not work for long. The arrangement is that the coalition is empowered to de-notify those areas that are deemed stable; in turn, this will then be passed on to the Union Government to take a final view. It is a safe prediction both that the Chief Minister will move early on this, and the onus will then be on Delhi to accept or reject. The latter will surely make for an uneasy coalition, and will only aggravate their relations. How the Army will react to such developments will also be significant – it will, at a minimum, further politicise the arrangement.

Perhaps the most troubling aspects are those that relate to Pakistan. For years, it has been the refrain of the BJP, indeed of all right-thinking people, that foreign relations are the domain of the Union Government. Much criticism has been levelled at the governments in Chennai and Kolkata for interfering in India’s relations with countries they have borders with. Now, the Agenda document states that “The Coalition Government will seek to support and strengthen the approach and initiatives taken by the Government to create a reconciliatory environment and build stakes for all in the peace and development within the sub-continent.”

This means that the government in Srinagar will work for a conciliatory environment, and this is not trammelled by any reference to what the policy of the Union government might be. It is well and good that the two are moving in the same direction today; but should the situation change [and it almost certainly will], and relations worsen, the Srinagar government will remain free to follow its own path. There is a similar call for encouraging contacts across the Line of Control, which too Mufti will surely push for. Back in 2005, the Hurriyet leaders had violated the conditions for crossing the LoC and had gone all the way to Islamabad. The favourable inclination towards the group that Mufti has already shown means that such provocations are in the cards. This too is fraught with risk.

As if this was not enough, there is a direct reference to the Hurriyet. What makes this more troubling is that the initial round of Foreign Secretary level talks with Pakistan was called off because of the contacts between the Pakistan High Commission and the Hurriyet. Now, we are back to recognising their role as stakeholders, within the irresponsible formulation of “Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat”. It was bad enough when used by NDA-I; the experience of the last decade should provide evidence enough that this formula is a dangerous one.

There are some positives, of course. In this list mention must be made of the opening for the private sector to play a role in the economic development of the State. Similarly positive is the promise of a better deal for Kashmiri Hindus, though this is hedged with the odd formulation that, “Reintegration will be a process that will start within the State as well as the civil society, by taking the community into confidence.” Behind this bureaucratese is the intent to spin out, and delay, the process. There are similar promises for refugees from POK and West Pakistan going back to 1947 – the latter group has effectively been put on notice that they will not enjoy the benefits of becoming State subjects.

There is, finally, the decision on a new delimitation. This, together with refugee settlement, can provide the real healing and reconciling between Jammu and Ladakh on the one hand, and Kashmir on the other, provided it is done with sincerity and with integrity. The fact is that the last delimitation, in 1995, only served to strengthen the political grip of the Vale on the entire State. The individual constituencies are also gerrymandered in such a way as to favour the Valley elite. Further, the National Conference Government in 2002 had amended the State Constitution to block any fresh delimitation until the Census after 2026; that is, there was to be no delimitation until after 2031. If there is to be a fresh exercise, it will need an amendment to the State Constitution, and that itself could prove to be a serious hurdle. Once that is done – if it happens – then it will be time to fix the unfair division of seats between the three regions of the State.

It is instructive to stand back and weigh the evidence of the arrangement. First off, the Mufti was clear that he was not going to share the term of office of Chief Minister. He had done that with the congress in 2002 – 08, and had had enough. The Congress Party, which understands statecraft better than the BJP [never mind its dubious ideology and commitments], had insisted on sharing the post of Chief Minister by turns. It is not clear why the BJP felt that it was too weak to insist on term-sharing. There is also the record of Mufti as Union Home Minister, and his later activities to bear in mind; presumably, all this is within the institutional memory of the Union Government.

The argument that it would betray the mandate if it stayed out – this is being made by several of the BJP spokespersons – is not convincing. First, it only won in Jammu, and there too just 25 seats out of 37, or about 70% - not much of a mandate. But more important, surely, the mandate of the people of Jammu was for a more equal power-sharing, and approach to governance in J&K. It is hard to accept the proposition that the concerns of Jammu have been adequately safeguarded in the Agenda document.

Mufti has clarified that some of the other Parties had approached him with offers of support. Thus, if the BJP had chosen to sit it out, it is not as if there was no alternative coalition possible. Indeed, the Delhi elections of 2013 had shown that the BJP did then think along these lines – in the run-up to the general elections, it did not want to get into any sordid deal-making. Finally, there was the option of Governor’s rule, which was already in place. It needs to be pointed out that J&K was under Governor’s rule from January 1990 to October 1996 – not a happy state of affairs, but this time it would have been shorter. Fresh elections could have been called in a year or two. And meanwhile, the Centre could provide good governance and hope to better its tally.

The intriguing question is whether the resounding defeat of the BJP in the Delhi elections played any role in softening the position and negotiating tactics of the BJP. The PDP had stated officially in the immediate aftermath of the Delhi election results that there would be no change in their stand of seeking a coalition with the BJP. They were candid enough to point out that there was a major plus in the fact that the BJP also ran the central Government. There seems to be some evidence, though, that the BJP became more amenable to PDP demands on the sticking points.

What is clear is that the BJP finds itself on the defensive. Its spokespersons have been making the argument that not participating in the Government would be tantamount to betraying the mandate of the people of Jammu. The above narrative suggests that respecting the mandate will require the BJP to show some firmness in its dealings with the PDP. On issues that are of concern to the population – delimitation, Article 370, to name but two – the BJP will need to be canny and resolute. So far, it is the PDP that has taken care to reassure its voter base, and the gestures made by Mufti and his Party since the swearing-in have this end as their aim. The reluctance of the BJP to voice its difference over these issues is, in fact, far from reassuring for its voter base.

The Greek King, Pyrrhus, is reported to have said, after winning a battle at heavy cost in lives – one more such victory and I am undone! This is the origin of the term “Pyrrhic victory”. The hope must be that the BJP will learn, and learn PDQ, that they cannot afford another such victory, and that short-term cleverness does not give good political returns.

March 2015,

New Delhi.

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