The Article 370 debate: Why are the Kashmiri parties spooked?

ImageJitendra Singh, the lone union minister from the region of Jammu, sparked a ‘controversy’ of sorts saying the government has started a process to garner consensus for the abrogation of Article 370. The now miniscule Opposition namely the National Conference and the PDP, were quick to pounce on the case, slamming the BJP for ‘further alienating the people of the state’ and ‘finally revealing their communal ideology’. J&K CM Omar Abdullah went to the extent of saying- ‘mark my works – long after Modi government is a distant memory, either J&K won’t be part of India or Art 370 will still exist’. PDP President Mehbooba Mufti added that Singh’s remarks had the potential of dividing the state along communal lines.

The sharp reactions from these parties makes one think – what benefit are they gaining from 370? It can’t be an ideological commitment to the Article. No party is that genuine.

But, two things come to mind. The special status tag to Jammu and Kashmir has allowed the state to get crore in aid from the Centre. In 2009-10, J&K received Rs 13,252 crore as grants from the central government, which constitutes nearly 60 per cent of the state’s total expenditure. In all, J&K has received grants amounting to Rs 94,409 crore between 1989-90 and 2009-10. However, countless news reports in the run up to the recent elections have shown that basic utilities of water and electricity, as well as services like education and healthcare, continue to plague major constituencies of Anantnag, Baramulla and Jammu. So where has the money gone? Has the cover of Article 370 kept the Kashmiri parties well fed for decades from Central funds?

The second point is that – with the Article’s provision that only residents of the state can buy property, a few business houses have formed an economic monopoly in the state. No major corporation or small or medium firm has the authority to independently set up shop there, constricting the influx of private enterprise and investments.

The state is rife with unemployment especially amongst the youth, with successive governments failing to develop different job sectors. This socialist style hold of the government enabled by Article 370, has had a socialist effect on society, impeding growth while the rest of India enjoys the fruits of the global market. So are the Kashmiri parties afraid of losing this very monopoly? Are they so afraid of losing their patrons that they are screeching ‘communal’ and ‘separatist’ notions in their opposition to even a debate on Article 370?

Jitendra Singh’s statement has also highlighted the stark differences between the sentiments of Jammu and Kashmir. The people of Jammu have for decades yearned for the growth story of other states. Even though the Jammu region has consistently voted for the BJP hoping that a change of guard will deliver prosperity, a greater vote share in Kashmir has kept them under the thumbs of the Kashmiri parties for years.

Be it citizens of Kashmir, Jammu or Ladakh, everyone yearns for and deserves better. Neither the Kashmiri parties nor Article 370 has been able to give them the society they deserve. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah says 370 is the only Constitutional link between J&K and the rest of India, but I feel it is the biggest social barrier between the two sides. By economically isolating the state, Article 370 has kept the people angry and frustrated allowing the Kashmiri parties to easily perpetuate the Kashmir vs India narrative.

However, things seem to be changing now. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, whose family has governed the state for decades, called for feedback from the voters on Twitter after scoring a duck in the Lok Sabha polls. Clearly he can’t sense the discontent in his state. With the BJP winning 3 seats in the state this time, tied with the PDP – maybe the party’s development message is gaining traction in the state beyond just Jammu. The sharp reactions from the Kashmiri parties indicate that the BJP narrative may have infiltrated their voter base.

With the party at the Centre, J&K seems to be fertile ground right now for the BJP to boost its presence and push the development agenda, even create public consensus for the abrogation of Article 370.

Kashmiri voters now seem to realise that the status quo has not helped them. All the BJP government has is an opinion, and this time the Kashmiri people have their ears wide open. That seems to have spooked the Kashmiri parties.