Prior to the commencement of the first round of polling in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, political parties devoted most of their energy in exploiting sentiments of local voters only to garner votes and grab power. There was specific reference to Kashmir in the manifestos of the Congress and BJP. The BJP promised to scrap Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. The Congress promised to appoint three interlocutors for the region as also hold talks with all stakeholders, without stating whom it considers stakeholders.

The NC and the PDP, both participating only in the valley, hit out at the BJP stating that tampering with the two articles would lead to unprecedented bloodshed. Farooq Abdullah doubted whether Pulwama had been scripted to suit the BJP. He challenged the claims of the downing of the Pakistani F16 and the success of Balakote.

Mehbooba Mufti, once a BJP ally, regretted her decision to join them. She questioned recent actions of investigative agencies in summoning separatist leaders. She has continuously been stating that talks must be held with separatists and Pakistan, who in her opinion are the stakeholders. She even promised to lift the ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami if elected to power in the state elections, dates of which have yet to be announced.

Omar further sought to divide the state by stating that the valley by itself needs an AIIMS, IIM and an IIT. The fact that they are being established in Jammu means nothing to him. In summary, both the PDP and NC seek to convey a message that the valley is not an integrated part of the state and thus needs separate treatment.

The separatists gave a call for boycott of elections on the ground that some of them and their family members were now being questioned by multiple investigating agencies. The call was ignored. To add to the confusion the government passed directions that there would be no movement of civilian traffic on two days when security forces convoys are slated to run. This has come as a major inconvenience to the local population and is being exploited politically.

Almost all entities based in the valley are playing an anti-India game, which if resorted to in any other part of the country could imply sedition. The BJP too is playing hardball and adding to the anti-India sentiment by announcing repealing of the articles, for political benefit across the country.

Pakistan has jumped into the fray claiming to support the struggle for self-determination. They have even stated that any attempt to repeal Articles 370 and 35A would be challenged in the UN. Imran Khan added to the controversy by saying that there were better chances of peace if Narendra Modi was re-elected as the PM.

Security forces worked overtime and ensured that there were no major threats of terrorist strikes during the electoral process. Their firm actions have pushed terrorists into the background. This was a remarkable change from the by-polls of 2016, when voting was called off due to violence. The fact that political leaders could campaign in the valley and address public meetings is itself a change from the past. No credit has been given to security forces for this.

Thus, in every possible way, the local population is being alienated and exploited. Despite all this provocation, the first phase of polling was done peacefully, and the percentages of votes cast were satisfactory. This shows that the population backs the Indian democratic process. Over the years it has been seen that every political party when not in power states that it has a solution for Kashmir, yet as soon as it comes to power, the solution appears to vanish.

The present elections have the valley-based parties concentrating their efforts only on the three valley seats. The seats of Jammu and Leh are being left to national parties. This indicates that the approach adopted by the valley parties has made them lose their base in other parts of the state.

It creates a situation where the Centre must now take the onus of leading the charge on resolving Kashmir. However, the present approach does not appear positive enough to provide a healing touch. Further, with the state under President’s rule, there can be no political outreach. State government officials are unwilling to move out of their secure bases to interact with the local population and resolve their issues. The act of successive Central governments of just pumping in funds for development and subsidies is not the long-term answer.

In addition, with no agency available to interact with the local population, this role and task falls on security forces. They are at the forefront whether it be assisting the sick, constructing entertainment facilities, opening and running educational institutes, conducting civic action, fire-fighting or even resolving local governance issues. There have been occasions when villagers have approached the army to push civic authorities on their behalf.

This is not an ideal situation as the soldier when interacting with the locals looks overbearing in uniform – adorned with a weapon and accompanied by a group which dominates the village while the interaction continues. While daily encounters with soldiers has partially removed the fear of the weapon, it is still daunting. Hence, expecting security forces to provide the healing touch and create an environment of being Indian, when local political parties and government officials are sometimes behaving to the contrary, is unlikely to be successful.

Till a government is installed in the state, the Governor must force the local administration to move out of their comfort zones and interact with the population to resolve pending differences, creating a positive environment for the future. With Pakistan under intense pressure, militants on the run and anti-national forces under scrutiny, an ideal situation is arising. Any government which comes to power in the Centre must immediately push for the conduct of state elections and enhance outreach to exploit the prevailing environment.

Delay would cause another opportunity to be lost.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)