There was only one reason that the otherwise ideologically dissonant alliance between the BJP and the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir – what former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed called the “meeting of the north and south pole” – made any sense. And that was because the election results in 2014 had thrown up a fractured verdict that drew a line through the heart of the state, pushing Hindu-dominated Jammu on one side of the political divide and the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley on the other. Mufti Saheb’s logic in embracing a coalition he knew was unwieldy from the start was to build a bridge across a floodgate of polarised emotions.
At the time, I was among those who thought the move reflected statesmanship and maturity by both parties. I believed – mistakenly – that the welding of muscular nationalism and soft separatism would have a salutary effect on each other to create a moderate whole. As I know now, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The bizarre coalition – in which the CM and the deputy CM are on different pages on all key issues (the Kathua rape and murder of a child, talks with Pakistan, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, cases against stone pelters, dialogue with separatists) – is not just unworkable; it is playing with fire in a state that is seeing some of its worst years since the insurgency erupted in the 1990s. Instead of nurturing a middle ground, the absence of any internal agreement has only emboldened extremes on either side. And if the singular reason to preserve the coalition was that no other arithmetic arrangement could represent both the regions of Jammu and Kashmir in the same government, well then, today, the regions and, dare I say, the people, stand sharply and dangerously divided like they haven’t been for years.
This need by both parties to play to entirely separate constituencies is one of the reasons that as soon as the media gaze was averted from the Kathua rape and murder, the BJP actually doubled down on the issue. The national outrage had compelled the party to remove two state ministers who had attended a rally of the self-proclaimed Hindu Ekta Manch in defence of the men accused of the rape. But, perhaps facing a backlash from its more hardline base in the Jammu region (that appears to have bought the manufactured, false and aggressively peddled narrative that all Hindus are being vilified), the BJP quietly elevated the Kathua MLA, Rajiv Jasrotia, who had attended the same rally, to the position of minister. The government’s new deputy chief minister then spoke of Kathua being a “small incident”. Neither development seemed coincidental. The BJP had quietly shifted into electoral gear.
Frankly, while the headlines may appear negative for them, the balance of power in the alliance today distinctly tilts in favour of the BJP. While Mehbooba Mufti’s team told journalists that the sacking of the two ministers was because the PDP had threated to call off the coalition if it did not happen, she was silent when the Kathua MLA, implicated in the same controversies as the two sacked ministers, was subsequently brought into her cabinet. It doesn’t appear as if she was taken into confidence either before the list of new faces was sent to the governor’s office. Just days ago, her brother, Tassaduq Mufti, a filmmaker from Bangalore and now the tourism minister of the state, spoke about the alliance in scathing terms, calling the two parties, “partners in crime”. Their inability to act on that public lashing of the alliance signals who is calling the shots.
A senior BJP leader agreed with me that the coalition was “untenable”, going one step further to say: “Now it’s just about who calls it off; them or us”. PDP sources, however, say Mufti’s party has a dilemma: if a defeat is certain in the next assembly elections, there is no real gain in forgoing the remaining two years in power. Effectively, by missing earlier exit opportunities to claim political martyrdom or the higher ground, the PDP may have surrendered that authority to the BJP. In other words, the BJP has more to gain from walking out of the alliance; the PDP has more to lose by staying.
The divisions only make India’s most sensitive state that much more vulnerable. Terrorism, the embrace of militancy by locals, religious radicalisation, Hindu-Muslim communalisation, jingoism, hysterical television channels, a collapse of any space for dialogue: all of it is terrible news.
The paradox of the ruling alliance is obviously just one of varied challenges in the state. But for the state’s sake and for the sake of both parties – even if it doesn’t collapse – it should.