The coalition patched up between the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Congress (I) in J&K following the 2002 elections, collapsed following protests over the Amarnath land transfer. Apart from the communal polarization and wave of anti-India protests that have preceded it, a repeated failure of governance in the past decade also make the 2008 elections crucial.
The first elections in Kashmir held in 1951 catapulted the National Conference (NC) under tutelage of Sheikh Abdullah to power. However the subsequent elections that followed were mired in charges of blatant rigging by New Delhi. One exception to this were the 1977 assembly elections, held after the lifting of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, whose party was routed allowing the NC to emerge victorious. However the electoral process lay suspended from 1990 as insurgency gripped the state, only to be rekindled in late 1996. The 1996 elections, regarded as fair, once again catapulted the NC to power. The 2002 elections built upon this process were acknowledged as being 'free and fair' by the international community. Disillusionment with what was popularly perceived to be a corrupt and insensitive government led people to vote for the opposition PDP, which too soon failed on the governance front. Instead corruption and narrow politics, as revealed by the political opportunism of the PDP in the Valley and the BJP in Jammu, over the Amarnath land row, ruled roost.
The protests over land transfer and the lack of state response to it, communally polarized the atmosphere and galvanized the separatist movement like never before. Communalization of the political arena is not new to Kashmir; this was witnessed in the 1983 elections when Mrs. Gandhi, in order to counter the BJP went so far as to incite Jammu Hindus against the Resettlement Act under which Muslims who migrated to Pakistan in 1947 were allowed to return and re-settle. The NC gravitated towards Islamist parties and election results clearly mirror this polarization - NC won thirty eight seats in the Muslim majority Valley, two in Jammu, and one in Ladakh; the Congress swept Jammu winning twenty three seats, a mere two from the valley, and one from Ladakh. However, following the launch of the separatist movement in 1989, communalization of identity in the political arena has acquired far more dangerous overtones.
The Indian state cannot afford to simply look the other way, as it did in light of the recent political turmoil. Nor can it afford to repeat its past mistakes of reducing the election process to a farce and in the process push Kashmiris into the arms of extremists. The most vivid example of this was the 1987 elections, when many candidates of MUF (Muslim United Front), ideologically close to the Jama'at, were beaten up by Congress goons. In sheer disgust and rage, many youth crossed into Pakistani-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and joined the mujahideen. Of these two in particular are worthy of notice, Muhammad Shah Yusuf who contested the 1987 elections on a MUF ticket and his polling agent Yasin Malik. Amidst charges of blatant rigging Yusuf was declared defeated and subsequently tossed into prison. Upon his release in 1989 he crossed over to Pakistan (as did Malik), formed the Hizbul Mujahidin and took the name Syed Salahuddin, the legendary 12th century Muslim commander during the Crusades. In a conscious invocation of Islamic religious symbols he spoke of war in Kashmir as al-jihad, or holy war. Thus, political assertion acquired a religious tinge.
The conduct of as well as the people's response to the elections, will play a crucial role in restoring the credibility and image of the Indian government. Thus, far the ten constituencies that went to polls in the first phase on 17 November witnessed a fairly respectable turnout, though slightly less from 2002, of 55 per cent. In fact the once terrorist-infested Bandipore constituency witnessed the highest voter turnout of 74 per cent. The second phase of polling that concluded in six constituencies on 23 November, though marred by sporadic incidents of violence, witnessed a high turnout of 64.66 per cent. The most intensely contested constituency in the second phase is Ganderbal which will decide the political fate of Omar Abdullah, who was defeated in 2002 from what was once considered to be his family's impregnable political fortress.
The figures thrown up by the first two phases augur well for the remaining five. The high turnout has eased government anxieties, foxed the separatists who hoped to transform the swirling anti-India sentiment into a boycott, and thereby at least morally undermining the legitimacy of Indian rule. Successful elections will lend a degree of political credence to the Indian state and will not only enable India to take the political process forward but could potentially spark a debate within the separatist camp on the need for newer political strategies of engagement with the Indian state as opposed their past rhetoric of boycott. However, the challenge for the Indian state would be to capitalize on the electoral process by subsequently being able to deliver effective governance which affects the everyday life of the common man.