Ayn Rand’s debut novel, We the Living, set in post-revolution Russia, is the story of a spirited bourgeois woman, Kira Argounova, caught between two men representing opposing ideologies: Andrei Taganov, an idealistic communist, and Leo Kovalensky, a dissolute bourgeois. Kira, whose life is drastically affected by the red revolution, keeps her ideas and aspirations alive, but decides to go along with the system until powerful enough to challenge it. She gives herself up to Andrei, whom she respects but does not love, in order to save Leo, whom she loves passionately. In doing so, instead of becoming a victim of exploitation it is she who exploits the situation to her advantage, even if in a desperate manner.
The story won’t be a far-fetched analogy if applied to Kashmir. In fact it might help understand the conundrum of Kashmir’s participation in elections in spite of the prevailing sentiment with regard to its right of self-determination or even independence. The same area which registers 70 per cent voter turnout one day, erupts into spontaneous protests against the death of a militant, or comes to a standstill on a separatist call, the very next. This seeming ‘inconsistency’ of the Kashmiri people has come under much criticism and has been used to denounce them, even by their leaders. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Kashmiris do not lack consistency or sincerity. It is just that the constrained circumstances that characterize their existence have given them with a degree of circumspection. A comparison between parliamentary elections and the assembly elections is an apt illustration. Parliamentary elections in Kashmir see a much lower level of participation than assembly elections which are about governance at the ground level. Average Kashmiris are not bothered about who ‘represents’ them at the centre because they know that it is a dummy representation, but at the same time they are aware that any form of government is preferable to the absence of one, which spells anarchy and only increases their misery. Participation in elections thus becomes a compulsion rather than an exercise of free will. Portraying it as an expression of allegiance to India by any party or individual is a shoddy attempt at manipulation which nobody can really take seriously. Participating in elections is almost as much an endorsement of the Kashmiris’ allegiance to India their applying for an Indian passport. It is not as if elections offer a choice between independence and allegiance to India. In the mind of the average voter, it is not as if the prevailing sentiment is pitted against the mainstream. There is no contest between the two, and so, there is no ‘victory’ in that, or defeat. No endorsement, no setback.
Nobody is asking the voter whether he wants to stay with India or go with Pakistan or prefer independence. He is just being asked to pick out of the proffered choice of candidates or parties those he wants to manage the affairs of the state for the next six years. If ever an election is held in a jail as to who the inmates would prefer as their jailor, there is every likelihood that inmates will express their preferences depending upon who is perceived as being less cruel or more lenient or comparatively agreeable. The act would not amount to their hearty acceptance of being caged.
Even mainstream politicians have admitted at times that the electoral exercise in Kashmir is only about governance and not an endorsement of India’s claim on Kashmir. It is a different matter altogether that when the same politicians emerge ‘victorious’ as a result of this conditional exercise they trumpet it as a rejection of the separatist’s agenda. Besides, there is no basic qualifying limit in elections which can lead to a ridiculous situation of a candidate getting elected even if only his own family voted for him, and the rest of the population boycotted the polls. There will always be people who are ready to barter their vote for personal gain, and there is always a minority, howsoever miniscule, which, for reasons of its own, or maybe even out of sheer perversity, has a grouse against a sentiment that may be dear to the majority. A boycott can by no means be absolute, and that in itself is an argument against it. At the end of the day, the announcement of a ‘victor’ far overshadows statistics about the percentage of votes polled. The boycott-or-no-boycott debate is self-defeating, and the separatists’ engagement with it like rejecting an invitation to a party, and then attending it all the same.