India's embattled northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir has entered a new phase of turmoil. The region has long had an active secessionist movement; currently, its law and order situation is deteriorating and it is making lackluster progress on infrastructure development.
Kashmir lies at the core of India and Pakistan's military rivalry. The nuclear powers have fought three wars to gain control over the disputed territory since achieving independence from the British Crown during the Partition of August 1947. Now, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for the 2019 elections in the world's largest democracy, his entire approach to politics — including in Jammu and Kashmir — will enter a short-term cycle aimed at maximizing his chances for winning another five-year term.
On June 19, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled out of its 3-year-old alliance with the People's Democratic Party (PDP) due to concerns over the state's situation. The collapse of the governing coalition, in turn, prompted the state's chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, to resign. The vacancy in the state's top administrative office was filled the next day by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, who approved rule by Gov. N.N. Vohra, an official appointed by the central government who normally fills only a ceremonial role. With Jammu and Kashmir now administered by an official who answers to New Delhi, the prospect of dialogue between the Indian government and Jammu and Kashmir's separatist movement will diminish. And that will make less space for India and its rival Pakistan to engage in talks to normalize their relationship.
A Coalition Built to Collapse
The collapse of the coalition forged between the center-right BJP and the center-left PDP in the state was in some ways inevitable. After 2014 state elections, the two parties forged an unlikely partnership to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite doing so, they failed to reconcile their divergent viewpoints on a variety of issues — including Kashmir's autonomy, the fundamental driver of New Delhi's decadeslong dispute with the state's separatist movement.
Now that Modi is beginning to campaign for another five-year term as prime minister — and hoping to advance his party's particular interpretation of a more coherent and unified polity — part of his campaign strategy is to embrace a tough approach to the insurgencies within India and burnish his credentials as a candidate firm on security.
This more muscular approach to quelling the violent separatist factions of Jammu and Kashmir is at odds with the PDP's preference for engaging in a dialogue with the political arm of the separatist movement. This group is made up of a coalition of organizations called the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which has long insisted on Jammu and Kashmir's right to self-determination under U.N. Security Council Resolution 47.
On May 17, in an effort to appease the PDP's exhortations for dialogue, India's Home Ministry imposed a cease-fire for the first time in 18 years against the militants in Jammu and Kashmir in honor of Ramadan. But ongoing militant attacks — including the murder of prominent Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari — compelled Modi's administration to allow the truce to expire on June 16, before it withdrew from the coalition.
BJP supporters in the Hindu-majority region of Jammu are frustrated that Modi has not prioritized rescinding Article 370 of India's Constitution, which gives Jammu and Kashmir special autonomous status within the Indian union. The abolishment of this article is a key element of the ruling party's ideological platform, which revolves around tightening the country's political integration. Conversely, Muslim supporters of the PDP were frustrated with the coalition government for failing to meet some key Kashmiri Muslim demands.
The Strategic Significance of Jammu and Kashmir to India
From a strategic perspective, New Delhi's ultimate objective has always been to prevent the secession of Jammu and Kashmir from the Indian union. As the country's northernmost territory, the area is sometimes known as the "crown" of India. The territory, which borders China, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the Punjab, provides the Indian Armed Forces with a critical staging ground in any potential conflict against China or Pakistan, India's two most serious rivals. These factors have helped inform Modi's strategy of employing an overwhelming use of force to break the region's insurgency and hopefully shape a political settlement between the government and the separatists that minimizes the prospects of yielding greater autonomy. After all, in the most extreme scenario, greater autonomy could lead to the merger of Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
What the Separatists in the Region Want
The separatists, for their part, seek the drawdown of the 700,000 Indian security personnel stationed in Kashmir under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990. The act, which grants expansive legal immunities to security forces, is a key point of contention fueling the anger among local residents, which often translates into an interest in joining the region's militant groups. Local recruitment to these groups has been increasing, though militant infiltrators from across the Pakistani border continue to pose a threat to Indian security forces in the valley.
What We Can Expect in the Future
Modi, however, recognizes that any significant withdrawal of forces would be seen by Pakistan as capitulation, essentially providing proof to Islamabad that its enduring campaign of asymmetric warfare, in which it aids and abets the domestically driven insurgency, is succeeding against the militarily more powerful India. And given the intensifying strategic rivalry between India and China, New Delhi has even more reason to maintain a robust force presence in the territory.
Having shifted his gaze toward the 2019 elections, Modi is positioning himself as a candidate with unbending resolve, dedicated to redressing the nation's various security woes. Inevitably, this means he will revert to a tougher approach against the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, hence his party's break with the PDP. And because the territory sits at the heart of the India-Pakistan rivalry, the space for normalization between Islamabad and New Delhi will narrow until at least after the elections.
From a regional perspective, the security risk of a military confrontation between India and Pakistan will remain high. And perhaps more importantly, the continued military rivalry between the two nuclear powers means that the prospect of increasing South Asian economic integration is dim, at least for the next year. Despite containing a vast set of emerging markets and being home to nearly one fourth of the world's population, the region has 5 percent trade integration, the lowest rate in the world.
As Modi focuses on re-election and his country's domestic situation during the next year's campaign period, little is likely to change on a regional level.