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What Will the Supreme Court's Article 370 Judgment Mean for Politics in J&K?

The court directed the Election Commission of India to conduct assembly polls in J&K by September 30, 2024.
Srinagar's Lal Chowk. Photo: sandeepachetan.com travel photography/Flickr CC NY-NC-ND 4.0

New Delhi: With the Supreme Court setting a deadline for assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir, speculations are rife on how the new constitutional architecture designed for the region by the BJP-led Union government will influence the first major electoral exercise post Article 370.

Delivering a historic verdict on Monday, December 11, a constitution bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud directed the Election Commission of India to conduct assembly polls in J&K by September 30, 2024.

The verdict came as Jammu and Kashmir is set to complete five years under Central rule on December 20.

In the past, the Election Commission has repeatedly refused to conduct assembly elections, citing security issues in J&K among other reasons, even as the poll body is preparing to hold the parliamentary elections in the union territory (UT).

Whether the Centre and the ECI will revive the democratic process, which has been put on a back burner since 2018, and allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to exercise their democratic right, remains in the realm of speculation.

What is certain is that the saffron party would like to come to power in the country’s only Muslim-majority region on its own, ideally with a Hindu chief minister, after getting judicial approval for its ‘big move’.

Professor Noor A. Baba, former dean of social sciences at the University of Kashmir, believes that the BJP-led Union government has “politically engineered” J&K after downgrading it into a union territory which could influence the outcome of assembly elections.

After the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 became a law, the Narendra Modi government redrew the electoral landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. When the controversial delimitation exercise was over, Jammu, a BJP stronghold, woke up with six additional assembly seats in its kitty while Kashmir got just one extra seat, despite a clear demographic advantage.

“Delimitation has completely changed the electoral arithmetic and tilted the balance in favour of the BJP. Even some electoral boundaries have been carved to ensure Hindu majority in some constituencies of Rajouri, Reasi and Chenab valley,” said Jammu-based author and editor Anuradha Bhasin.

Also read: Ends Matter, Not the Means: Decoding SC’s Approval for Reading Down of Article 370

The saffron party is also reaching out to the Scheduled Tribe Gujjars, Bakkerwals and Paharis by raising the bogey of ‘empowering the marginalised’ with a new reservation policy.

On the day the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Article 370, the Rajya Sabha gave its nod to the J&K Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 which increases the number of seats in the J&K Legislative Assembly from 83 to 90 of which seven seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes and, in a first, nine for Scheduled Tribes.

The Bill also empowers J&K’s Lieutenant Governor to nominate two members from the Kashmiri migrant community and one from Displaced Persons from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir to the Legislative Assembly.

Baba said that given India’s federal structure, the Union government should have left these landmark changes for a democratic dispensation in Jammu and Kashmir to undertake, asserting that in the process “Kashmir has been marginalised”.

“Today, J&K has been manoeuvred in a manner which has reduced the majority into a minority,” he said.

While the changes effected by the delimitation and assembly reservation might help the BJP to cross the mark of 25 seats it had won in 2014 assembly elections, even its most fervent supporters know that the party can’t come close to magic number of 46 required to form the government in the new, 90-member assembly.

To this effect, the BJP has been mollycoddling with like-minded leaders and Kashmir-centric parties.

Since 2019, two new formations have also sprouted on the political horizon which are led by former J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and former leader of Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, Altaf Bukhari, both of whom have made public displays of affection for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On the other hand, the National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who are part of the fledgling Gupkar alliance, have vowed to fight the BJP and restore Article 370. But the two are also facing perhaps the most difficult times in their history.

Professor Rekha Chaudhary, a Jammu-based academic and political analyst, believes that the next assembly election will be a direct contest between the BJP and National Conference.

“In Kashmir, it is the NC which is quite confident of doing well. Not only because it showed its strength during the DDC elections held couple of years earlier but also because the PDP has been crisis-ridden with senior leaders leaving it over the period.”

She added: “Other parties, including Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference, have a limited influence and they may well end up on the other side after the elections results are out.”

Senior political analyst and editor Zafar Choudhary believes that the Supreme Court’s verdict has brought in a “fundamental change” in J&K’s traditional political environment and the situation might “get difficult” for the local parties.

“In Kashmir, BJP has allies in a political environment where no party can get any serious listeners to the claims of being pro-special status. This ‘level playing field’ opens space for BJP’s local allies,” Choudhary told The Wire.

With the Gupkar alliance getting sucked into petty political tirades, political analysts believe J&K assembly elections could well turn into an exercise in vanity with a pie of power hanging for anyone willing to share the spoils.

However, Jammu, which helped the BJP more than double its tally in the 2014 assembly election, might not be a cakewalk this time.

“In the Jammu region, though the BJP is facing multiple challenges, it is also comfortable with the fact that there is no alternative to it. The Congress, the only party that could have challenged it, has been weakened after Azad’s exit and his party has not really taken off. NC has almost withdrawn from the region and is mainly focusing on Kashmir,” Chaudhary said.

Following the exit of Devendra Rana and S.S. Slathia, the NC’s most visible Jammu faces who have since switched to the BJP, the party does not seem to be active in the plains of Jammu. “All this leaves the field open for the BJP,” Chaudhary, who taught at the University of Jammu, added.

In Kashmir, analysts believe that the election is going to be a no-holds-barred contest where the traditional parties like NC and PDP will struggle and bleed in the face of the BJP’s multi-pronged assault which has sent dozens of their leaders flocking to the ‘right’ camp.

“With the exception of the PDP which has not changed much of its basic orientation, other parties have almost moved on. The NC, mainly because of the future that it sees for itself in the coming elections, has adopted a more pragmatic approach. Much before the Supreme Court decision, it had delinked its politics from the issue of Article 370, stating that this was a ‘legal issue’ pending with the court.”

Analyst Choudhary said that any party or alliance will have to win 48 seats, three more than the halfway mark of 45 seats, to form the next government.

“However, the BJP and its allies will need only 43 seats as Lieutenant Governor is empowered to nominate three members. Given the voting pattern of the last three assembly elections, it is unlikely for any alliance to clinch the magic number of 48,” Choudhary said.

“In case of a close contest, three officially nominated members could hold the key to the government formation,” he said.

Baba said that the structural changes that have taken place in J&K might be difficult to undo once democracy and statehood is restored: “They may or may not work for the BJP but even if the party doesn’t come to power, some of the policies will have to continue.”

He added, “Whatever is happening in J&K is happening at the behest of the Centre and the Centre is behaving as per the political calculations of the BJP. Undoing of Article 370 had a political objective and these changes fall into that pattern.”

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