Brig Anil Gupta
For the first time in the past three decades of political turmoil in Kashmir, the separatists and both main stream political parties have come on the same page and called for boycott of elections. So far it were only the separatists and militants that were opposed to the democratic process. After the National Conference (NC) announced that it would stay away from the upcoming panchayat and urban local body elections, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) too declared its intention to boycott the elections. Have both the parties lost faith in democratic process or are trying to follow the agenda of the separatists? Both parties in the past are known to have resorted to emotional exploitation of the section of the population that feels aggrieved and has been backing the separatists. Despite, the conduct of local body elections having been included in the Agenda of Alliance (AOA), Mehbooba Mufti had been reluctant to hold these elections on one pretext or the other at the behest of separatists whose agenda is to stem the electoral process in the Valley.
Despite the boycott the first phase of Urban Local Bodies’ elections has been completed successfully. The elections were held in the state after a gap of 13 years because successive state governments had been reluctant to hold these elections because the Kashmir-centric political parties are against devolution of power to the grassroots level. They are more interested in centralised control of power so that they can preserve the dynastic hold on their respective parties. Devolution of power to local bodies and panchayats implies de-centralisation of funds to them which is unacceptable to the so-called mainstream politicians in Kashmir because that would mean squeezing of their coffers. That is why while these elections have been held for 13 times in the rest of the nation, in J&K these are being held only for the fourth time.
Modi led government at the centre is determined to empower the common man in Jammu & Kashmir so that the benefits of democracy are felt by them and they also become a part and parcel of governance thus ensuring development at the grassroots level. Accordingly, PM Modi announced from the ramparts of Red Fort on 15th August this year that panchayati elections would be held in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. While the announcement was welcome by the people all across the state, the self-centred political leadership of Kashmir-centric parties went in a huddle to devise a strategy to derail the process. These parties were also backed by separatists and Pakistan which have always been against return of peace and restoration of democracy in Kashmir. There was spurt in violence with emphasis on civilian killings sending warning signals to the administration that the situation was not conducive for holding the elections. Kashmiri leadership made loud noises in order to convince the central leadership to give up the idea of holding the elections.
Central government remaining unmoved and determined to conduct the elections, the ball was set rolling with the newly appointed Governor of the State announcing the decision to go ahead with the conduct of much awaited elections to ULBs and Panchayats. In a last-ditch attempt to pressurise the government, NC and PDP announced the boycott of elections using the burning issue of 35A, which is subjudice, as an alibi. ‘Blackmailing tactics’ which had paid rich dividends in the past and which was considered as their trump card by the two major mainstream political parties of Kashmir failed this time with the government refusing to succumb to their tactics and went ahead by announcing the poll schedule.
While, such a response from NC was natural because despite its best efforts including the strategy of ‘communal and divisive’ politics, the party failed to revive its political fortune in the state, which had nosedived badly after 2014 elections. Sensing imminent defeat in the forthcoming elections due to the poor response the party got in all three regions, NC chose the softer option of “quitting without contest” and resorted to tried and tested strategy of exploiting the regional and religious sentiments of the people of the state. The party chose Article 35A as an alibi only to distract the people from the reality of apparent ignominious defeat.
Keeping in view the dynamics of regional sentiments, PDP was left with no option but to follow suit. Despite the win in 2014, the party had lost mass appeal rapidly due to ‘stay safe’ policy of its public representatives who lost complete touch with the people particularly in remote and rural areas. South Kashmir which was once considered the bastion of the party became a mine field for the same because the people felt betrayed by their elected representatives and flip-flop policies of Mehbooba Mufti, who clandestinely was trying to promote the separatist agenda.
Congress till the very late continued to maintain an ambivalent stand. Its Kashmir based leadership was shifting stances very often. They kept sending mixed signals between ‘boycott’ and ‘participation’. Congress faced another problem. The party has been left with no cadre because of non-holding of elections for decades. In J&K, Congress is ‘cadre less’ party with plenty of leaders. Non-participation would have prevented the exposure of ground reality for some time. That is why, the Kashmiri leadership of the party was also reluctant to participate in elections but the pressure from Jammu leadership of the party, tilted the balance in their favour. The party announced its decision to participate but was disappointed soon when it had no takers to contest elections on its election symbol. Thus, Congress failed miserably to field candidates in many wards not only in Kashmir but Jammu as well.
BJP was the only party which had been demanding the conduct of these elections since long. The decision to hold elections was not only welcome by the party but it at the same time announced its decision to field candidates in almost all wards in the state. Net result was that many BJP candidates were declared ‘unopposed’ winners in many parts of Kashmir. NC as usual was quick to react by terming these elections as a ‘mockery of democracy’. Rather than appreciating the courage and dedication to democracy of the BJP candidates, who defied all threats, opposition parties tried to belittle their effort.
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, founder of NC, was instrumental in starting the practice of “unopposed” winnersin J&K. He wanted to make J&K “a single party state” and abhorred opposition of any kind. NC candidates won unopposed in scores in the elections conducted in the state by NC from 1951 to 1962. All elections were manipulated to ensure NC’s overwhelming victory. The writ of Election Commission of India did not run in the state till 1967. There were no elections for the parliamentary seats and NC candidates were nominated. Regrettably, the same NC is finding it difficult to digest when the BJP candidates are winning unopposed not due to manipulations but due to the reluctance of the mainstream parties to face the electorate. They decided not to contest because they knew that people are not willing to contest on their symbols, no body forced them to boycott the elections.
Some apologists also tried to highlight the low voter turnout in Kashmir through manipulative presentation of data. They highlighted the fact that there was only 8.6 % voting, concealing the fact that frontier district of Kupwara had voted more than 33% and terror hot-bed Budgam 17%. The segments that reported low turnout have traditionally been polling low because of the influence of separatists and Jamaat. Only last year, Dr Farooq Abdullah won the by-election to Srinagar Parliamentary seat with a voter turnout of 7.13%. There are still three phase to go and the peoples’ response may surprise the apologists.
Whatever, may be the final turnout, the biggest plus of holding these elections is the loud and clear message to Kashmir-centric parties which thrive on ‘blackmailing’ that they will no longer play the role of ‘king-makers’ in Kashmir and they have been marginalised and exposed.
The large and overwhelming response in Jammu and Ladakh has once again reaffirmed their allegiance to the idea of “India”. Similarly, voter turnout in Kashmir despite the boycott and bandh calls as well as threats by terrorists has shown their love for Jamhooriyat. While the separatists are losing their clout, people are determined to rise against terrorism. It is also a referendum against the emotional politics of the mainstream parties who are using 35A to retrieve their lost political fortunes. Large voter turnout in Muslim majority districts of Kupwara, Kargil, Rajouri and Poonch reveals the rejection of the stand taken by these parties. The democratic forces have once again given a crushing blow to the fissiparous, divisive and separatist forces. While batting for Jamhooriyat, the awam has out rightly rejected the “politics of convenience” as practised by Kashmir-centric political parties.
(The author is a Jammu based columnist and political commentator.) (The views expressed are entirely personal.)
Brig Anil Gupta