THERE are many terrifying aspects of the crisis in India-held Kashmir (IHK); one of these is the speed with which the helplessness of institutions that previously had a sense of agency has been highlighted. In recent days, Indian opposition political parties have more emphatically joined the chorus of those opposing the BJP government’s tactics in the disputed region. Their impotence holds crucial lessons for Pakistan.
On Saturday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and other opposition politicians were prevented from visiting Srinagar, and asked to leave after spending an hour at the city’s airport. Gandhi was leading a delegation of nine opposition parties to IHK, with the hope of meeting with local party leaders and members of the public affected by restrictions imposed following India’s abrogation of Article 370. The Indian government has thus far not permitted political leaders to visit Kashmir.
Several large opposition party rallies also took place last week to reject the conditions in IHK and demand the release of political leaders and the restoration of communications services — to little avail.
The increasingly coordinated attempts by the Indian opposition to push back against the BJP’s Kashmir policies and related atrocities are interesting not because they will bear results, but as a reminder why Narendra Modi was able to push through arguably the BJP’s most controversial manifesto promise. The abrogation of Article 370 is as much about the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian agenda as it is about the lack of meaningful political opposition.
The crisis shows how far political opposition in India has been eroded.
The extent to which the political opposition in India has eroded was clear following elections this year. Congress, historically the BJP’s main rival, won just 52 out of 543 seats. Opposition parties’ failings took many forms — from the failure to counter the BJP’s Hindu nationalist campaign with a compelling alternative to the inability to coordinate an anti-BJP front comprising major parties. The BJP has also aggressively exploited tensions between opposition parties to consolidate power in states where it did not win; most recently by facilitating the collapse of the anti-BJP coalition government in Karnataka.
In the absence of a strong opposition, the BJP has successfully undermined legal and constitutional norms that anchor Indian democracy, of which the abrogation of Article 370 is the most egregious. Even before Kashmir, opposition parties were balking at constitutional amendments that allow the Indian government to designate individuals as terrorists. The opposition has also protested the BJP’s infringements on the workings of the election commission, central bank and other government departments.
The Kashmir crisis offers many lessons for Pakistan: on the importance of diplomatic influence; that the sacrosanctity of backchannels may be deceptive; the paucity of multilateral mechanisms to intervene in the face of rampant HR violations. Our leaders are dwelling on these lessons.
But there other lessons too. Foremost among these is the importance of a lively democratic landscape, featuring numerous empowered political parties to ensure the resilience of strong political opposition — the first and most effective check on policy excess or constitutional transgression. Modi could not have pulled off the abrogation if a Congress-led opposition coalition were in place. Pakistanis must remember this as they decry the BJP’s roughshod slam-through of its agenda, while at the same time staying silent as the domestic opposition landscape is gradually undermined.
Indeed, the Kashmir crisis, and Pakistan’s strong, multifaceted response has put forward several such reminders. Our appeals to the UN and other international powers have been complemented with sensible calls for greater media freedoms within Kashmir so that the world has an accurate picture of the extent of despair in the valley, and with assurances to provide access to IHK for human rights organisations. These are laudable measures by our government. But they must come with the awareness that if standards extended to Kashmiris are not evenly applied across the country, the discrepancy will stoke further resentment.
Ultimately, these issues are best handled by enabling a strong democratic culture, a key facet of which is the role and conduct of political parties. Beyond valuing the importance of a meaningful opposition, we must take all steps to ensure that the political culture cannot be eroded. This will require a focus on party governance and the need for intra-party elections; transparent campaign financing; disclosures of politicians’ business interests; poll reforms; the independence of the election commission, etc. These mechanisms will in the long run support the resilience of all political parties. And as the experience across the border has demonstrated, without the right checks, there can be no balance.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2019