Beset by recent state election defeats in south India and facing the prospect of tough campaigns next year in the central Indian Hindi-speaking belt, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress (I) Party is making a major electoral push for assembly polling in the predominantly Moslem state of Jammu and Kashmir next month.
The campaign is being conducted amid extraordinary security precautions following a flurry of communal violence the past two weeks that has left six dead and about 500 persons injured. Such violence conjures fears of the kind of Hindu-Moslem electoral clashes that earlier this year cost 3,500 lives in the far northeastern state of Assam.
While the campaign in Kashmir has been phlegmatic compared to the carnage that accompanied the Assam elections, 10 battalions of the battle-hardened Border Security Force and Central Reserve Police--7,500 men--have been rushed to the Kashmir Valley. In all, 22,000 troops will be deployed for the election, officials say.
Both Gandhi and Farouk Abdullah, the leader of the ruling Kashmiri National Conference, appear to have done little to lower the rhetorical thermostat, with each side accusing the other of fanning religious prejudice to establish political supremacy in the strategic northern border state. Abdullah is chief minister of the state.
During a three-day campaign swing through Jammu and Kashmir, Gandhi repeatedly invoked the nightmares of Assam by accusing the National Conference of aligning with religious extremists, and charging that attempts were being made to disenfranchise voters, presumably non-Moslem, as had been done in Assam.
For his part, Abdullah has portrayed himself as protecting Kashmiri Moslems from the kind of cultural extinction that mostly Moslem Bengali immigrants claimed they face in Assam. In September he inherited the mantle of a half century of political dominance in Kashmir from his father, Sheik Mohammed Abdullah, known as "the lion of Kashmir."
But for all the hyperbole, the outcome of the Kashmir polling appears to be a foregone conclusion, and the early promises of a closely contested electoral battle seem to have been misplaced.
Informed political analysts here with close ties to the Congress (I) campaign in Kashmir concede that when the state's 3 million voters go to the polls June 5, the best that Gandhi's party can do is win seven assembly seats in the heavily Moslem Kashmir Valley, while at best doubling its strength to 20 assembly seats in Hindu-dominated districts in the southern part of the state that is called Jammu. There are 76 seats in the state assembly.
In the 1977 state election, which was a battle primarily between the National Conference and the now discredited Janata Party, the National Conference won 40 out of 44 seats in the Kashmir Valley but only seven out of 32 seats in Jammu. The Congress (I) Party won only 11 seats throughout the state that year.
But the Congress (I) position has improved, particularly in Jammu, because of fragmentation in the Janata Party and dissension within the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the largest surviving segment of the Janata Party of 1977.
Congress (I) strategists here said that while they had already written off the prospect of an outright victory in Kashmir, a strong showing there for Gandhi is important for rebuilding the party's morale.
Although Congress (I) shares control of 15 of India's 22 states and enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament, it has not won a majority in the past eight state assembly elections, all of which have taken place since Gandhi returned to power in 1980.
Congress (I) defeats in January in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, both party strongholds since Indian independence in 1947, stung the prime minister because they were interpreted as a repudiation of her attempts to impose strong central control on both the party organization and the state governments.
The Kashmir election, Congress (I) strategists say, is important symbolically, because it is the last major assembly poll before important state elections next year in the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh--all important Hindi-belt states upon which Gandhi has relied traditionally.
Elections will also take place next year in the western state of Gujarat and the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Orissa.
National elections for the 544-seat Parliament must be held by 1985, although for months the capital has been rife with rumors that Gandhi will call for mid-term balloting to consolidate her position and that of her son and heir apparent, Rajiv, 35.
Both the prime minister and her son have expended considerable political capital in Kashmir, traveling extensively with messages of preserving the Indian union against divisive regionalism.
Kashmir is a microcosm of the regional tugs at work in India, but at the same time it has been a symbol of the all-India phenomenon and secularism in this vast, diverse nation of 700 million people of different languages and religions.
While having been allowed to enjoy unique constitutional privileges of autonomy despite their strategic importance on the Pakistani and Chinese borders, Kashmiris are acutely aware of their economic vulnerability and of a need for union.