Even as the fascinating play of government formation unfolds in Pakistan after the historic elections last month, political analysts on this side of the border have begun to spin their theories on what the future holds for India-Pakistan relations.
Will the new coalition government be strong enough to rein in the Taliban forces in the northwest? What will be the role of the army and its recalcitrant intelligence agencies, particularly the insidious ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence)? Will infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir be curbed? Most importantly, what will be the new regime's approach to the interrupted Kashmir dialogue? Vexatious questions all.
President Pervez Musharraf must be given credit for opening a new and unorthodox chapter in the resolution of the Kashmir tangle. Both Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh responded courageously enough. Apart from CBMs (confidence building measures), like the softening of the borders, easing travel and cultural exchanges and reviving trade talks, the not-so-confidential second track diplomacy appeared to be heading towards a positive resolution. All this was greatly welcomed in Kashmir, even by separatist groups like the Hurriyat, albeit grudgingly. The ultra extremist Syed Ali Geelani being the exception.
From all accounts, the surprisingly free and fair elections in Pakistan, the dramatic results and the resurgence of democratic processes have surprised many, including the Kashmiri political groups. Nevertheless, despite the enthusiastic public rhetoric, these have also thrown up serious doubts about their own future strategy. Let us not forget that 2008 is also an election year for Jammu and Kashmir. Let us also not forget that it may well be an election year for the Indian parliament. In any case, March 2009 is not very far off.
In Jammu and Kashmir, electoral winds have started to blow down from the snowy peaks. Even though the gloves have not been completely taken off, all the three main protagonists - Farooq Abdullah's National Conference, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's People's Democratic Party and the reluctant Ghulam Nabi Azad's Congress - have already set the pot to boil.
Each has been holding public rallies in the opponents' strongholds, obviously to bolster its own vote bank. Biased prognostications about the impact of these meetings are further confusing the menu. And the Hurriyat's pussyfooting about its own position on the forthcoming elections is only adding "much to the masala". For the present, the end result is anybody's guess, but one thing is certain; it is going to be one steamy bubbling stew.
This is not an attempt to gaze into the future electoral mirror for Jammu and Kashmir but to underscore the impact of the Pakistani electoral verdict and its political build-up over the last year on the political perspectives in Kashmir. Musharraf was certainly seen as a "moderate", willing to find an honorable compromise.
His four-point formula was welcomed by most in Srinagar even though hardliners like Geelani and militant groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba saw it as a sell-out. However, Musharraf's desperate attempts to hold on to power, with the sacking of judges, repression of media and banning of political activity dismayed even the optimists. The moderate aura was gone. Pakistan was no longer seen as the savior. And yet, ironically, hope continued to float for a Kashmir settlement, as if this could be independent of Pakistan's internal turmoil.
Partly because of Pakistan's own domestic preoccupation and partly because of the government of India getting itself into a bind over the India-US nuclear agreement with its self-opinionated ally the CPI-M and its bete-saffron the BJP, Kashmir was not just put on the backburner but vanished from the South Asian political radar.
The crises in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh helped to divert attention even further. Helpless, the Kashmiri politicians had no option but to withdraw into their small time wrangling accusations of corruption, inept governance and Azad's defensive claims about a shining "J& K". One of the harshest winters in recent times with its rigors of connectivity, electricity, fuel and water added to the "isolation". Not surprisingly, the citizenry has continued to grow even more cynical.
So how do the political parties approach the October (if not earlier) elections? The National Conference has reverted to its "autonomy" platform fuelled by the strong anti-incumbency factor. The PDP is torn between its vague "self- governance" mantra and a love-hate relationship with the ruling Congress, not to mention its intra- party vitriol. As for the Congress, its last three years' performance has few takers and the leadership has been embarrassed by Saifuddin Soz being sent to replace the discredited Peerzada Mohammed Sayeed as the state party chief.
As the election tempo gets charged, the Hurriyat is cornered into the "Prince of Denmark" role. To participate means swearing allegiance to the Indian constitution and bidding goodbye to separatism; if not 'azadi'. Not to be in the fray means continuing to wander in the wilderness, looking for some bulwark other than Pakistan, which is really more concerned with putting its own house in order.
Yet, all the political parties and formations barring the Congress have no option but to continue to talk about improving India-Pakistan relations in one form or the other to establish their bonafides. Duality becomes the dilemma.
Where does all this leave the Kashmir people who continue to suffer the indignities of human rights violations with no redressal and continue to nurse their alienation from the Indian mainstream? High and dry as usual, it would seem, unless the next general election brings in a government in New Delhi that can act with humanity, determination and sagacity.