The surest sign that the Kashmir campaign is part of a mainstream election is that Narendra Modi has come to drop in the thick of it.
The surest sign that the mainstream here is differently defined is that three-fourths of Kashmiris aren’t bothered voting.
Panchayat elections have drawn upwards of 80 per cent voters in parts of the Valley. Assembly polls this last decade and a half have seen an average 45 per cent turnout.
Electoral engagement in Kashmir comes tethered to compulsions of quotidian utility, local means and ends; it’s no benchmark of political endorsement. If it is, the interpreters of the Kashmiri Morse in New Delhi and beyond should spell out the message of 25-odd per cent, no more, coming forth to vote for Parliament.
But between those insistent truisms has sprung a teaser that captivates voter and boycotter alike: Is Modi coming? Is it going to be iss baar Modi sarkar? More Kashmiris are interested in how India is voting than Kashmir itself. Is Modi really coming? What will that do?
Is this election Kashmir’s renewed interrogation of the idea of India? Having spurned the polls themselves, are they reading in the 2014 ballot-leaves clues to the prospect of a re-negotiation?
What could Modi do? For better or for worse, but surely something new, something beyond remaining knocked as the “arch-stone” in the edifice of secular India?
“He’s not a man to hang around,” a retired civil servant with stated separatist aspiration told me of Modi over tea last evening. “He speaks a new language many may not like, but it is a new language. He may have new terms of reference to spell out to Kashmiris.”
We sat on the lawns of his well-appointed bungalow, one among many in the high-walled Baghaat neighbourhood of Srinagar. Paramilitary troops were taking position at vantage points in the Baghaat by-lanes in preparation for Wednesday’s polling; we could hear the clip-clop of their boots and the groaning of armoured vehicles round impossibly narrow bends. My host blew indifferent puffs of smoke into the crystal spring air.
“Few people will go out to vote in this part, I wonder why these troops bother themselves,” he remarked sardonically.
Then, after a few more punctuations of smoke, he said: “I have seen too much to delude myself, but that doesn’t prevent me hoping for change, or at least something new. Modi is the kind who will push, it could make things worse, it could usher change, who knows? I am not romantic about aazaadi, but I do want movement, whichever way.”
Jagmohan, governor of Jammu and Kashmir between 1990 and 1993, isn’t a terribly popular man in these parts. He arrived masquerading as nurse and left pretty much the visage of an autopsy surgeon; he left the Valley bereft of its panicked Pandits and in the deathly embrace of insurrection.
Even so, Kashmiris find occasion to use a phrase Jagmohan used in his Raj Bhavan memoir: frozen turbulence. It’s what the civil servant employed with a twist.
“How long are we to remain in this frozen turbulence? Something must give, we are looking at Modi, perhaps with cautious expectation, perhaps with apprehension, but we are.”
Farooq Abdullah, patron of the National Conference and candidate from Srinagar, finds no reason to equivocate on Modi. He thinks his possible arrival as Prime Minister a thing of fear and foreboding. He would have his constituency instilled with that sense.
When he took the microphone at Margund, a sliver settlement between the frothing Sindh darya and hills leaping up towards Sonmarg, he began by conjuring a devil his audience of chiefly Gujjar herdsmen had no real intimation with.
“This is not a battle for your roads and schools and electricity,” he told them, perhaps to some disappointment in the riveted ranks, “I have come to tell you of a much bigger battle, the battle for India. If Narendra Modi comes, India will not survive, the rights of Kashmiris and Muslims will not survive, he will abrogate the freedoms you enjoy under Article 370, he will scrap the laws of the Sharia that run our personal lives. How can we live in an India ruled by Modi? Think, that is what this election is about.”
He refrained from repeating today what he has made headlines with: that Kashmir will not remain part of India if Modi becomes Prime Minister. The irony of it has probably dawned on the senior Abdullah —- he is offering Kashmiris a prize he has loudly proscribed: secession.
Is it also a thing of charming irony that the Abdullahs’ chief adversary, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has littered his own trail with advocacy of the framework of the Indian Constitution?
If the Abdullahs have raised a scare about Modi and warned of secession, the Mufti has whispered a pragmatism in dealing with the NDA spearhead. He has been eulogising the NDA years under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and, by thinly veiled implication, saying Barkis is willing.
Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir are barely six months away; the wily Mufti could well be weaving his way to a new coalition. But that’s in the far future; in the Valley you can’t even tell the weather from this hour to that.
Of today, what can be said is that a bit of Kashmiri history has dissolved in the dust of Farooq Abdullah’s departing caravan. This may have been a day many will wish to preserve, many to proscribe from memory.
The conclusion of canvassing for Srinagar could well mean Farooq Abdullah, the eldest of Kashmir’s leaders, has sought votes in his name for the last time. At 77, he thought the best way to do it was not to invite the voter to an inventory of his legacy but to invoke in them the fear of Narendra Modi.
That’s the surest sign, this is a mainstream campaign. The absence from polling booths on voting day will be the surest sign the Kashmiri mainstream is not part of it. It’s only looking which way India turns.