As political parties wait, with either bated breath or resigned despair, for poll results on 23 December, one thing is already clear: India has won the Kashmir elections.
There was no violence, which is the terrorist's only hope against the power of democracy. The turnout, including in the core strongholds of extremists, was either extraordinary or exceptional. And the crowds that came to greet and cheer Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the valley were unprecedented for any leader from outside Kashmir at election time. It is difficult to predict how many seats BJP will get, but it is certain that its vote will increase hugely in constituencies where it was a bare presence before. The change, in that sense, has already come. People have responded to the theme message of development, encouraged by the urgency of the Prime Minister's commitment to their welfare after the recent floods.
I write this without the benefit of near-sight or hindsight. The exit polls have not come; nor did I visit Jammu and Kashmir during the long campaign season. But it is obvious that of the four principal parties in contest, two, National Conference and Congress, are in a tight race to finish last. Which of these partners, who have governed with an arrogant mix of cynicism and bombast, will actually pick up the lead medal remains to be seen. But the National Conference is headed towards a long exile, and the Congress is comatose in yet another state, which it has ruled for over a decade. The BJP lost the general elections in both 2004 and 2009, but the party retained a substantial and substantive presence in its base-states. The Chief Ministers kept the party in business and then led the revival, most notably Narendra Modi in Gujarat. He made good governance, effective development and quality infrastructure the fulcrum of his appeal. He caught the mood of the 21st century, particularly the youth.
After a quarter century of emotionalism and perilously high voltage politics of creed and caste, the young yearned for something different, something sensible, something relevant to their true needs — for a better life, and within their own lifetimes. You can see the nuanced pattern of the vote in Gujarat. During the Modi decade, BJP did much better in the Assembly elections than in national elections — until of course the tsunami this year, when the Gujarat experience blossomed into an India promise.
It does not take rocket science to decipher that the young of Jammu and Kashmir, and Jharkhand want precisely what their counterparts in Gujarat have experienced, starting with electricity and a better habitat. Today, there is no generator on sale in Gujarat because the state has about 40% more power capacity than it consumes. No one who can afford it lives without a generator in J&K and Jharkhand. Electricity does not merely mean heaters and air conditioners for the rich. More important, it enables the child with just a bulb in the room to study his texts in the evening. Electricity is a necessity, not a luxury.
The people of Kashmir have understood that the politics of religion is barren territory. All they have to do, for confirmation, is glance at Pakistan; the barbarism of its fundamentalists, its unrelenting violence, chaos and fractured polity. The horrifying slaughter of innocent schoolchildren in Peshawar occurred during this election. It has sent a chill into the heart of every child, everywhere, but most tellingly in Kashmir. A schoolchild is preparing for life; fanatics offer nothing but merciless, rampant death. Political scientists have noted that people pull together when danger threatens. The danger of falling into the grip of fanatics stares at Kashmir's children and young.
No businessman will invest in a battle zone, so Pakistan's economy gets lip service while the state stands helpless. Second, Kashmiri youth can see where the rest of India is headed. Kashmiri merchants sell their products in every city. Tourists arrive with an income surplus to spend on leisure. There is the possibility of employment in a hundred different sectors across the breadth of a subcontinent. Why should Kashmiris deny themselves the visible benefits of a new Indian narrative? India is pulling ahead on the basis of a modern definition of a nation state: democracy, freedom of speech and faith, gender equality and economic equity. Pakistan has an uncertain democracy in which the Army wants an institutionalised place in office. There is faith supremacy and gender regression. And the poor are fed the opium of fanaticism.
An election, however, is only the start of a process. The polls of 2014 must deliver a government that sets aside the temptations of self-serving rhetoric and gets down to giving every citizen of Jammu and Kashmir a government that is synonymous with the welfare of the people. This, at the very least, requires cooperation between state and Centre.
This election should be the moment when the 21st century reaches Jammu and Kashmir.