Post-nineties, elections draw two diametrically-opposite responses in Kashmir. The ‘mainstream’ response portrays elections as the only way out, and the only way forward. Even changes in the ideologies and alliances of various mainstream politicians are explained away in terms of being the best that could happen to the people. Come elections, and mainstream leaders are seen at their most sympathetic to Kashmiris’ sentiments for their real political aspirations. But, they go on to rue, what has been done in the past cannot be undone, and the only way to move, therefore, is to move forward – meaning the direction that lets the status quo continue and keeps some unspecified later date to address “all pending issues.” All ‘past’ mistakes are blamed on political opponents who must be rejected for authoring the very agenda so necessary to be carried forth nevertheless.
And if politicians and parties start espousing ideologies quite at variance with their past, they do not have to fumble for words as to why what was ugly in the past has suddenly become not only acceptable but also right. Attacks over the change are warded off by countering that the accusing parties or politicians have themselves been ‘guilty’ of the same in the past. It is like telling a victim that as he has condoned murder in the past he might as well condone it again, albeit in favour of a different player. Justifications, which appear as righteous indignation in speeches and newspaper articles by sympathizers or hacks-for-hire, would have been funny had they not been so pathetic. It does not stop there: the parties go to great lengths to prove that their wrongs in the recent or the distant past have been surpassed by those of their opponent. Out pop statistical niceties – our opponents killed 100 militants during their rule, but we (or our new party) killed only ninety-eight. And election manifestoes are mostly not about the party being a greater good but about it being a lesser evil.
The separatists’ response forms the other extreme of the spectrum. They call for a boycott, rejecting elections as irrelevant and a Hobson’s choice, citing their projection as a referendum in favour of India. But elections are held, boycott or no boycott, and someone always wins. The boycott, mostly partial, becomes a mere statistic that appears in local papers and is then relegated to the dustbin of history. To think that, like our regular expressions of angst through hartals and shutdowns, boycotts register to any significant degree with countries or agencies that could make a difference is mere wishful thinking. In any case, when the whole problem, the local sentiment and political aspirations of the Kashmiri people are very much a matter of record and yet do not seem to be registering anywhere, what can be gained by this another mode of passive resistance? This, of course, is not intended as an argument in favour of voting. There is enough writing on that. What prompts this argument is the fact that the politics of the oppressor have changed, and policies that were always a mere threat stand every chance of being carried out if the saffron brigade attains its goal of 44+, or some other wise manages a strong foothold in Kashmir’s corridors of power.
This is not to bring the sentiment of the people into question. In fact, it is not about sentiment at all, but about strategy. If sentiment remains unchanged, that is sincerity and steadfastness. But this does not necessarily hold true for strategy. Unchanging strategies are an invitation to disaster.
Elections in Kashmir do not confer the real right of choice that elections are actually all about. But when the question is of choosing a lesser evil, shouldn’t there be a rethink? Even forbidden fruit become kosher when survival is at stake. Sentiment is a matter of faith and cannot be divorced from emotions, but strategy were best left to rationality. In the current scenario, it may be well worth contemplating that the leap from a frying pan into the fire could very well spell annihilation.