Kashmir's ruling dynasty snubbed by war-weary voters

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The Independent Online

A political earthquake rolled through the mountains of Indian-controlled Kashmir yesterday as the party and family dynasty that has dominated the landscape for half a century was humiliated by long-suffering, war-battered voters.

A political earthquake rolled through the mountains of Indian-controlled Kashmir yesterday as the party and family dynasty that has dominated the landscape for half a century was humiliated by long-suffering, war-battered voters.

After an election awash with bloodshed, the pro-India National Conference, which has ruled the turbulent province off and on since India won independence from Britain in 1947, failed to win enough seats to form a majority in the state assembly.

It was a domestic setback for the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose ruling coalition includes the National Conference. But it was a victory for India on the international stage as the unexpected result allowed him to argue that the poll – held despite almost daily bombings, gunfights, mass killings and assassinations – was free and fair.

The National Conference had sought to revive its waning fortunes under the leadership of the suave Essex-born Omar Abdullah – the 32-year-old son of the chief minister, and grandson of the party's founder, the so-called "Lion of Kashmir", Sheikh Abdullah.

But he was seen by many in Kashmir as a stooge of the distant central government in Delhi – he is a Foreign Minister of State – and the member of a dynasty that had grown arrogant and extravagant over the years. He lost his seat.

With the four-stage elections completed in Kashmir, and also in Pakistan – which went to the polls yesterday – the United States at once renewed pressure on India and Pakistan to resolve their long-runninng and bitter feud over the divided province. Before the counting of votes had even been completed, the US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was in front of the television cameras, declaring the election "an important step in a broader political process".

Conflict over Kashmir lay at the heart of a crisis this year in which the two nuclear-armed neighbours mobilised their armies, pushing the region to the verge of war. Tempers flared anew during the election, a poll which India says Pakistan sought to subvert by sponsoring violent separatist Islamic militants.

With daily killings – Indian security officials say 730 people died in the province since the election was called in August – India rumbled angrily about taking unilateral action against Islamabad, shorthand for a military strike. Pakistan retorted by pouring contempt on the "farcical" poll, and test-firing a ballistic missile twice within a week.

The exact outcome of the poll remained unclear last night. Although the National Conference party won the largest number of seats, its tally of 28 fell well short of the 44 needed to form a majority.

As its leaders have reportedly rejected joining a coalition, the path seemed clear for the two largest runners-up- Congress, India's main opposition party which performed well in the Hindu-majority Jammu region, and the People's Democratic Party, which is strong in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley – to forge an alliance. To do so, they need to recruit a handful of supporters from smaller parties in the 87-seat legislature.

For India, the election is a form of endorsement, and a means of undermining Pakistan's call for Kashmir to determine its future by referendum. Mr Vajpayee, visiting Europe, declared the election as a resounding vindication of India's stand.

The Indian government says the turn-out was 46 per cent, and argues that this is an overwhelming mandate, given the level of violence. But its case is badly dented by the voting in urban areas; in one constituency in Srinagar, the summer capital, less than 2 per cent of voters turned out.

Analysts described the result as a reflection of deep-rooted popular discontent over the state government's failure.

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