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Congress may be repeating BJP's error of 2003

By T V R Shenoy
January 06, 2009 18:31 IST
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The year 2008 has withered away. Shall the Congress party follow suit?

The year has ended with two sets of elections, full-fledged assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir and a set of eight by-elections in Karnataka. Neither should give the Congress any cheer.

This may seem a harsh judgment, particularly so in Jammu & Kashmir where the Congress has returned to power as part of a coalition. The minor difference is that the Congress is now in bed with the Abdullah clan's National Conference rather than the Muftis' fiefdom of the People's Democratic Party.

The major difference is that the Congress has three fewer seats and is down by about 6 per cent in terms of actual vote-share. (Its current partner, the National Conference, lost almost 8 per cent in terms of votes but retained its old strength of 28 seats.)

The truth is that the only parties to have gained from the Jammu & Kashmir assembly election are the BJP and the People's Democratic Party, the former increasing its tally by 10 seats and the latter by as many as five. Between them, these two now have 32 MLAs in the assembly, a significant figure in a House with a total strength of just 87. In other words, the stage is all set for trouble in Jammu & Kashmir.

The People's Democratic Party used 'soft secessionism' as its plank during the polls. This has been the bane of the state, the theory that Jammu & Kashmir is somehow different from the rest of India, something that was at the root of Jawaharlal Nehru's Kashmir policy. Yet at no point did either Pandit Nehru or any of his camp ever condescend to explain how and why the state is 'unique.'

Truth be told, I would agree to an extent -- but only because every Indian state is unique. Kerala is not Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is unlike Andhra Pradesh even if plenty of North Indians club them all together as 'Madrasis.' But when was the last time that you heard any serious politicians from these states speculate about 'autonomy,' or 'separate currency,' or even a 'separate Constitution for our state?'

This is exactly the level of discussion fostered by sixty years of Nehruvian policy, where it is acceptable -- even fashionable -- in Kashmir to speak of 'Kashmiris' and 'Indians' as distinct people.

The truth is that Jammu & Kashmir is 'unique' only in having a Muslim majority, a fact that you are not supposed to mention in 'secular' circles. If anything, I believe the secessionist leaders are more honest than the 'secular' hypocrites elsewhere.

Here is what Syed Ali Shah Geelani, head of the Hurriyat Conference, said back in August 2008. His aim, he said, was 'to impose an Islamic nizam in Kashmir. Islam should govern our lives, be it in our political thought, socioeconomic plans, culture, or the ongoing movement.'

He helpfully added that 'the creed of socialism and secularism should not touch our lives.' And for good measure, 'The question of imposing an Islamic rule is different. Why do people object to it? If America and India can have democratic rule, others can have Communism, why object to Islamic rule?'

Appalling to say, almost everyone in the media ignored this vile rubbish, choosing to berate the people of Jammu instead during the Amarnath controversy. Syed Ali Shah Geelani actually openly admitted in the same interview that the 'transfer of land is not the core issue for us;' the secularists in Delhi could not bring themselves to be equally honest.

In a nutshell, the roots of secessionism do not lie in some imaginary 'Kashmiriyat', this is the same uncompromising philosophy espoused by the Muslim League before 1947. And if anyone is asinine enough to believe that a National Conference-Congress coalition can douse these fires, well, think again.

The National Conference came to power in Jammu & Kashmir in 1987 and then again in 1996. Both occasions only served to strengthen the secessionist forces, and that could happen again if history is a guide.

The People's Democratic Party was prepared to float ideas like 'dual currency' to attract votes. The party may not have won power but you cannot ignore the fact that it increased its tally of seats and votes alike, cutting the ground under the National Conference in its former strongholds in southern Kashmir. Out of power, the People's Democratic Party will feel ever bolder in raising such demands.

The difference between the situation today and those of 1987 and 2002 is that the people of Jammu are now almost as upset as those in Kashmir. Anger at the Congress's perceived pampering of Kashmiri secessionism led to voters turning to the sole alternative, the BJP, in Jammu. That could happen elsewhere too.

If the politics of Kashmir are the most hospitable to secessionist elements, Karnataka probably takes the prize for being the most nationalistic. All five of its neighbouring states -- Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Goa -- are home to strong regional parties; Karnataka has practically none. The Janata Dal (Secular) may now be confined to Karnataka alone for all practical purposes but it still boasts a pan-Indian history and is led by a former prime minister of India, H D Deve Gowda.

So it should give the Congress some pause for thought when the party lost all the eight by-elections in Karnataka, five seats falling to the BJP and three to the Janata Dal (Secular). This, please remember, was the state where Indira Gandhi once found refuge after she lost power in 1977, and from where the likes of C M Stephen and Sonia Gandhi herself were once elected though neither was a Kannadiga.

Amazingly, the Congress has succeeded in alienating almost every major voting group in the state. The largest group, the Lingayats, were rather insulted when the entire weight of the Mumbai tragedy was placed on the shoulders of former Union home minister Shivraj Patil, whom they consider one of their own. The Vokkaligas, the second largest group, were offended by the Congress high command's demeaning treatment to their senior leader, the former chief minister S M Krishna. And the former Congress deputy chief minister Siddaramaiah, of the third largest group, the Kurubas, did not even bother to campaign during the by-elections.

The Congress used to revel in its electoral management in the old days. It takes a special kind of ability to offend all of the three numerically most significant groups in Karnataka -- and simultaneously fall afoul of voters both in the Kashmir valley and in Jammu.

Five years ago, in December 2003, the BJP was cock-a-hoop after its electoral sweep in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. At that point I wrote: 'I suspect that rejoicing over the results in the larger states shall mean a loss of introspection in the Bharatiya Janata Party over the loss in Delhi. And this could be a mistake.' (I got a lot of angry responses!)

Five years later, the Congress may be repeating the BJP error of 2003 -- allowing successes in Delhi, Rajasthan, and (to an extent) Jammu & Kashmir to blind it to a larger national alienation as seen in Karnataka.

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T V R Shenoy