The timing of the impending polls in Jammu and Kashmir has become a political hot potato.
Six years ago, when assembly polls were held, 29.5 percent of the people turned out to vote in the Kashmir valley and 54 percent in Jammu, with a state average being 44 percent.
Today if you go to Srinagar, people will tell you that not more than "2 to 4 percent people" will come out and vote in the valley if elections are held on schedule.
The central government is inclined to hold elections in J&K along with the Hindi heartland states going to the polls in November. The Election Commission of India has been holding consultations with the mainline parties before deciding.
The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party want to go ahead with the polls. Though National Conference leader Dr Farooq Abdullah is for polls soon, there has been some ambivalence in the way his son Omar Abdullah, who is the party president, has formulated his views. The NC stands to gain from a low turnout in the valley.
The BJP hopes to encash the anger in Jammu on the Amarnath issue in 20 out of the 37 constituencies in Jammu which are Hindu dominated. The Congress, which may lose out in the valley and Jammu, might retrieve ground in Poonch and Rajouri in the remaining 17 seats where Muslims are dominant, given their fears in a sharply polarised situation.
The People's Democratic Party, which finds itself on the backfoot, is against polls. They argue that elections should not be held till the mainline parties feel confident of being able to go to the people and campaign.
There are compelling arguments for and against November polls in J&K. Those for argue that it is the best way of normalising the situation. Governor's Rule ends on January 7, 2009, and unless a popular government is in place by then, President's Rule will follow.
The absence of an elected government, which is a buffer between Delhi and Srinagar, would further compound the situation, sharpening the conflict between the Centre and the state, possibly making it even more difficult to hold elections as time goes by.
Conversely, the elections can help create an instrument which could draw people away from street politics to approaching their MLAs to demand schools, roads, and power. The reestablishment of the political process has its own advantages, and it gives an opportunity to the MLAs to engage with people on a host of issues. This can act as a safety valve, giving vent to the people's anger. After all, the turnaround in militancy afflicted Punjab took place, not under President's Rule but under Beant Singh.
The government also assesses that the postponement of elections would be a vindication of the separatists' stand. It calculates that people in rural areas would turn out to vote more than in the cities despite the boycott call. After all, it would not be the first time the separatists would have called for a boycott. They did so in every election that has been held since 1996. And yet, despite it, there was a 70 percent turnout in the bypolls in 2005, and it touched 80 percent in some places in the local elections.
The argument against the polls are equally persuasive. Given the upsurge of violence in the valley, with calls for 'azadi' by young people, the voter turnout might be very low, negating the painstaking process of normalisation that has taken place during the last decade. A small drop in the voter turnout may pass muster but if it slumps to, say, 5-10 percent, the polls would lose their legitimacy. It will send its own message to the international community and can be embarrassing for India.
Secondly, given the present upsurge, which has now gone beyond the land row in the valley, the announcement of elections could give a handle to the separatists to mobilise people against them in the villages. Today young people are driving the agitation as much as they are being driven by the separatist leaders.
There is another factor at work, and that is the change in the power balance within the Hurriyat, with the hawkish Syed Ali Shah Geelani coming to the fore again. And he appears to have the backing of Islamabad again.
Even before the fracas over Amarnath, there was a view that Pakistan might try and disrupt elections in J&K and thanks to the small and shortsighted games of our leaders, we might have played into their hands. There have also been indications of a revision in Islamabad's strategy on Kashmir after the exit of Pervez Musharraf. It might now focus more on supporting political action in Kashmir than relying exclusively on backing militancy.
Even as the government gives a clear message that India will not give up Kashmir, it has to reach out to people in the valley, and restore their confidence that it means business in going ahead with the process of dialogue.
When to hold elections in J&K is not an easy call to take, though there is nothing like a perfect moment. Clearly, the priority has to be to bring down the temperatures in the valley first before embarking on an electoral exercise. If that can be done by November end, J&K can go to polls along with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. Otherwise, they can be held with the general elections.