World Bulletin/News Desk
India's election, staggered over several weeks and ending on May 12, may well propel Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi to power, a prospect that has Indian-occupied Kashmir's 12.5 million people scrabbling to determine what it would mean for them.
India's sizeable Muslim minority of 150 million is wary of the 63-year-old, whom many blame for failing to prevent communal riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Gujarat, where he is still chief minister.
Modi denies the charges, and says they are repeated by allies of the ruling Congress party to tarnish his reputation at a time when opinion polls make his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) favourite to lead the next government.
In its election manifesto, the BJP vows to uphold India's territorial integrity and abrogate a clause in the constitution that grants occupied Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy.
That puts Modi at odds with locals who have long favoured independence from India.
In another sign of a more assertive policy should Modi come to power, during a recent campaign speech in Kashmir's Hindu-majority district of Udhampur he criticised the ruling Congress party for being soft on Pakistan, which also claims the region.
India blames Pakistani forces for coordinating and carrying out attacks on its troops and civilians in occupied Kashmir.
Udhampur has already voted - elections to the region's six seats are staggered for security reasons. The BJP candidate there, Jitendra Singh, came to support a colleague in Anantnag, which lies in the broad Kashmir valley.
"We do not wish to enter into a dialogue with Pakistan from a position of weakness," Singh said at the BJP's heavily-guarded office in Srinagar, the state's summer capital. "We cannot allow terrorist attacks and a dialogue to continue at the same time."
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised to revive Kashmir talks and made this a focal point of his own election campaign last year, but the efforts stalled after a spate of violence on the disputed border in August.
India deployed more than 700,000 police and soldiers who, campaigners say, have abused special legal powers to shoot protesters and carry out extra-judicial killings with impunity.
"This is democracy at gunpoint," said Khurram Parvez, convener of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
CHANGE OR NO CHANGE?
Talk of a "wave" of support for Modi across India brings a wry smile to the lips of Mehboob Beg, who is seeking re-election in Anantnag on a joint ticket of Congress and its regional ally, the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference, that runs the state.
"The more the wave is in favour of Narendra Modi, the more it will help us," Beg told Reuters before addressing a crowd of 3,000 in Kokernag, a township that hosts a large police base.
Playing up the secular ideology of Congress and independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru's roots in the region, Beg said: "Congress understands Kashmir better than the BJP and Modi. This is a Muslim-majority state, for God's sake!"
Even that may not be enough to encourage people to vote. At 39 percent, occupied Kashmir had the lowest turnout of any Indian state in 2009 elections, due to widespread rejection of the political choices on offer.
"Elections cannot be a substitute for self-determination," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a Kashmiri religious and political leader who declares the election illegitimate.
Independence leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani does not rule out talks if New Delhi meets conditions including recognising Kashmir's disputed status and cutting back troops.
"We are not against dialogue, but we want meaningful, results-oriented dialogue," the 84-year-old told Reuters at his home, where he has been under house arrest for most of the last four years.
C. Uday Bhaskar, a fellow at the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi, played down prospects of renewed violence, saying: "People prefer jobs to guns." But he saw little chance of a strategic shift if Modi claims power.
"The experience of the last 60 to 65 years suggests that a change in government doesn't mean a change in security and foreign policy," he said. "You only see a change in emphasis."Last Mod: 24 Nisan 2014, 00:14