Commentary / World

India's growing crisis of democracy

by Chandrahas Choudhury


Of the panoply of challenges faced by the leader of a large democracy, some are perennial (when is the economy not an issue?) and usually of a low intensity; others are seasonal and high-stakes.

This week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has found his forbearance and strategic capabilities exercised to their fullest by a domestic crisis (to some citizens, a foreign policy one) partly of his own making. An ambitious political experiment engineered by Modi and his Hindu nationalist party in the border state of Jammu and Kashmir — the only Muslim-majority state in India — threatens to implode within just a few days of its inauguration.

The largest region within Jammu and Kashmir is the Kashmir Valley, the tinderbox of South Asia. The valley has been the subject of hostilities between India and Pakistan for seven decades, since the controversial accession, by its Hindu king, of the state of Kashmir to India in 1947.

In recent decades, it has also been the site of a separatist movement that has, in the hands of different agents, taken recourse both to arms and the ballot box. Most Kashmiris resent the militarization of their state and the special powers exercised from above by New Delhi.

But if Kashmiris stand accused by many Indians from other parts of the country as being “anti-Indian,” most Indians, through a combination of arrogance and ignorance, fail to see that the democracy run with a benign face from New Delhi has a much more brutal face in the valley, and its conduct in Kashmir provides a case study in “how pluralism goes bad.”

Among the many causes held sacred by Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is that Kashmir is “an inviolable part of India.” This hard-line stance has meant that the BJP has traditionally had little cachet in the state and has only been able to wield influence there when in power in Delhi — which of course only further antagonizes the Kashmiris.

But in Jammu and Kashmir’s state elections in November, once again the “Modi effect” took hold, just as it had in the national elections of May and several state elections thereafter. The BJP made huge advances to emerge as the second-largest party in the 87-member house and in a position of special strength, while the party with the largest number of legislators, the Kashmiri People’s Democratic Party, was unable to garner a simple majority. The BJP was faced with a conundrum: On one hand, it sensed an expansion of its electoral frontier into the territory most resistant to it across India, but to do so, it would have to do business with a party that, if not explicitly separatist, certainly sees the movement for Kashmiri independence as a legitimate one.

For two months, party strategists negotiated with the brain trust of the PDP until an accord was finally announced. Both sides agreed, impressively, to give up or suspend a key plank of their Kashmir policies: The BJP would give up its (in the eyes of some, unconstitutional) demand for the repeal of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution, which grants some special concessions to Kashmir, while the PDP would not agitate for the termination of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives the central government sweeping powers to arrest suspected militants in Kashmir and detain them without trial.

It was greatly to Modi’s credit, then, and a sign of New Delhi’s maturity on the question of separatism, that he could engineer an alliance that made it seem, in the words of one Kashmiri observer, “that the north and south poles have embraced each other.” (In fact, even as the prime minister put his political credibility at stake, hard-liners on the right predicted a swift demise for the alliance, citing the very same reasons.)

The new government was sworn in earlier this month in the capital, Srinagar, with the PDP’s head, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, as chief minister. “Kashmir has been a problem in front of every prime minister, whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee or now Narendra Modi,” Sayeed said after taking his oath. “We want to change history and make this alliance a turning point in history.”

But a week later, it has all turned sour. Earlier this week, Sayeed ordered the release from detention — detention under the terms of yet another piece of unpopular legislation — of the Kashmiri separatist Masharat Alam, one of the organizers of mass protests in 2010 in which more than a hundred lives were lost. The decision created a furor both in the state and in parliament, where Modi himself called it a “national outrage” and told parliament he had not been consulted about it. Meanwhile, Alam lost no time in declaring in an interview that he had only moved “from a smaller jail to a larger jail, which is Kashmir.”

Had he been in the opposition, Modi would have lost no time in demanding a crackdown in Srinagar. But now the prime minister finds himself maneuvered into a tight corner by Sayeed, at 79 the veteran of many an intrigue.

If Modi were to pull on the plug on the new government in Kashmir, it would please many hawks in his party, but the satisfaction would be short-lived. Sayeed would likely extend the PDP’s gains in new elections, and perhaps form a majority government in the state. If Modi were to ignore Sayeed’s provocation, that might embolden Kashmir’s chief minister even further.

Modi has to find some middle path that enables him to set down his own roots and his own authority in the troubled state, or else he will join the list of prime ministers who have made no headway in Kashmir. The game is fascinatingly poised.

More generally, the present dispute in Kashmir leads to another point about India today. The words “Indian democracy” sometimes obscure the truth that a prominent feature of that democracy is its federalism, and some of the most interesting developments in the field originate in the states, or in the interplay — as in Kashmir — between state and center.

Many of the larger Indian states — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar — have higher populations than some of the largest countries in Europe, and they have developed their own democratic norms and peculiarities, good and bad. The present political crisis is mainly a crisis because it represents a rare chance for Kashmiri democracy to advance hand in hand with, rather than in resistance to, the central government.

It is an opportunity — and a dilemma — of which Modi is acutely aware.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.

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