by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

Early this month a new government was formed on the Indian side of Kashmir. It was formed by two ideologically opposite political parties – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the government in New Delhi, and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), relatively a local formation in Kashmir. The coming together of the two political parties is widely viewed as “north pole and south pole coming together”.

The coming together of the two different poles has also generated hope. If the two parties can shed their extreme positions and form a coalition to run the government, it is possible that they will collectively address the concerns of the people through harmonious means than through force.

BJP’s position is that Kashmir is an integral part of India. It wants to abrogate special provisions granted to Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. On the other hand the PDP, popular in the valley, is considered soft in its approach towards handling separatism in Kashmir. Its leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed became famous for his ‘healing touch policy’ while serving as Chief Minister. The policy aimed at addressing the alienation of the people and bringing the extremist elements to the mainstream. His people-friendly policies led to significant decline in militancy in the valley. Sayeed played a role in the opening of the roads between the two parts of Kashmir and called the opening “mother of all confidence building measures”. While Sayeed was the Chief Minister of Kashmir in 2000s, a BJP led coalition was in power in New Delhi.

The militancy that started in Kashmir in 1980s slowed down after the BJP led government, under Atal Behari Vajpayee, initiated dialogue with Pakistan and supported the policies of the Sayeed government. Vajpayee’s famous bus ride in 1999 from Delhi to Lahore to meet his counterpart marked the beginning of a new relationship between India and Pakistan. Though the Kargil war in late 1999 and the Indian parliament attack in 2001 created obstacles in the dialogue process, the relations picked up gradually. While Vajpayee initiated measures from New Delhi, Sayeed initiated measures from Kashmir towards a comprehensive dialogue between the people of Kashmir and India.

This is the first time BJP will be part of a government in Kashmir. In the elections held in November/December 2014, PDP almost swept the Kashmir valley and BJP the Jammu region. The results showed that the Muslim majority valley is not fond of the nationalist BJP, and the Hindu majority Jammu is not fond of PDP. After the elections results declared, PDP and BJP emerged as the two major parties but each lacked the needed majority to form government. For the local people it was a surprise that BJP and PDP were engaged in negotiations to form a government. The negotiations went on for more than two months. The two major contentious issues that stretched the negotiations were: Article 370 and Armed Forces Special Powers Act. BJP wanted to revoke the special provisions, which PDP resisted. PDP wanted to revoke the Special Powers Act, which BJP resisted.  At the end of end of February, the two declared that they have developed a common minimum program to form a government. The common program shelved the contentious issues. That was a big achievement as it demonstrated the readiness of the two parties to pursue a middle path.

Within one week of coming to power, Sayeed worked to implement his election-promises including setting free the political prisoners. His release of Masarat Alam Bhat, allegedly the mastermind behind the protests of 2010, within one week of coming to power, left BJP red faced. Before that on the occasion of the oath taking ceremony, Sayeed had praised Pakistan and the militants for the smooth conduct of the elections. BJP countered that the elections were conducted peacefully because of the support from the local people, the election commission and the security forces. There was ruckus in the Indian parliament, with opposition parties charging BJP of compromising national interest. The prime minister clarified that national interest is of supreme importance. The Indian government issued a directive to the Kashmiri government to monitor the movements of Bhat.

It is likely that the new government in Kashmir and its policies will prove beneficial for the people of Kashmir and for the relations between India and Pakistan. The understanding between the two political parties may lead PDP to address the concerns of the people in Kashmir, particularly those in the valley, and BJP to support policies of economic development in the region. PDP’s popularity in the valley, and the stature of 79 year old Sayeed, will help address the alienation of the people, and BJP’s control over the national exchequer will help alleviate the problems of unemployment and underdevelopment.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD candidate in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also a center fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy.