K B Jandial
Last month’s election for the District Development Council (DDC) has been acknowledged across the board as one of the most successful, peaceful and credible elections ever held especially in Kashmir, for which Delhi and J&K administration deserved kudos. It has established the faith of the people of Kashmir in India’s democratic process.Its outcome has thrown up some interesting issues, claims and conclusions. With a fractured mandate, DDC election is win-win situation for most of the political parties/ pre-poll Alliance and that’s they are doing to make some brownie points. But more realistically, the results are ‘no-win’ situation for anyone except the Independents who took 50 seats securing third slot in the tally of seats won by parties. More than any party, it was the triumph of democracy which unfortunately didn’t have credible past, right from the Constituent Assembly which can hardly make Kashmir proud. This is part of history.
Being the first democratic exercise since abrogation of J&K special status which itself was a significant, 34% voter turnout in volatile Kashmir is not bad in given situation. In fact it is much better than many of the past elections like 19.2% in 2019, 31.2% in 2014 and 22.7 % in Lok Sabha elections, 29.6 % in 2002 Assembly election. However, it is less than 2014 Assembly election which recorded 56.5% voter turnout. Many, however, opine that had the voting timing in winter zone fixed from 8 am to to 4.30 or 5 pm as in the case of Assembly and General election all over the country, voter turnout in Kashmir could have been higher. Even Jammu’s 68% polled votes are less than that of Lok Sabha poll of 2019 (71.4 %) and Assembly poll of 2014(75.9 %). The overall percentage was 51. Luckily, there was neither any terrorist nor separatists’ call against participation in DDC election or any intimidation.
In this direct election for DDC members, held first time in the country for such Panchayati Raj institution which too is a debating issue, there was a very critical agenda of restoration of Article 370 from Kashmir centric parties. This agenda brought six Kashmir Centric mainstream parties and one national party, CPI-M together under People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. The objective was also to prevent division of anti-BJP votes and thwart BJP’s effort to control DDCs in Kashmir which was possible if case of their boycott. With seat adjustment they achieved the objective. These six parties are NC, PDP, Sajjad Lone’s JKPC, Shah Fasial’s JKPM, Hakeem Mohammad Yaseen Shah’s Jammu and Kashmir People Democratic Front and Muzaffar Shah’s Awami National Conference. The Congress which was a signatory to Gupkar Declaration on 3rd August, 2019, walked out of the Alliance last year and fought elections separately. APNI party, considered B-team of BJP, tested the political water first time after realignment of their senior political leaders, had no such agenda and so are the Independents. On the other hand there was no question of seeking restoration of special status by BJP, Panthers Party and BSP even though the former two parties were vehemently anti BJP seeking vote for restoration of Statehood.
The DDC, third tier of Panchayati Raj system, is a new concept in J&K even though it exists elsewhere in the country long back following 73rd Constitutional amendment of Rajiv Gandhi’s time, extension of which was resisted by successive J&K Govts. The enthusiasm seen in election for DDC itself brings home the fact of forced political disempowerment of people at grassroot level by J&K Govts which opposed extension of the important constitutional amendment using powers underArticle 370.
There are many aspects and interpretations of the outcome of this election which has brought a much needed thaw in Kashmir’s frozen political process. The results have something for everyone to jubilate. The PAGD leaders were jubilant over winning 112 seats(NC-67, PDP-27, JKPC-8, CPIM-5, JKPM-3, PDF-2) out of 278, all set to control 11 districts( even more with the help of Congress and Independents) even though the seats are less than the fifty percent mark to claim a mandate technically. But nonetheless it is big political comeback for NC and PDP despite full-blown campaign against them for scams, favourtism and corruption especially after abrogation of Article 370. It was presumed that “discredited” leaders had lost confidence of people of Kashmir.
The BJP with 75 seats came out to be the single largest part, too claimed vindication of their policies including abrogation of Article 370 even when their vote share in its traditional bastion has declined from 59.3 % in 2019 to 34.4 % now. It could hardly control only six of ten districts of Jammu. Is this loss due to internal bickering, wrong choice of candidates or arrogance of their leaders? The party suffered major embarrassment in the loss of seats in BJP President Ravinder Raina’s constituency as well his home district of Rajouri, defeat of many senior leaders and former ministers. It is for the party high command to do introspection over declining public support.
While elections to civic bodies and Panchayati institutions have local importance but given the ever prominence to Kashmir,every election always have significance. But since it was the first election after scrapping of J&K constitutional special status on 5th August 2019, it had huge political significance and obviously attracted national and international attention. The PAGD leadership was quick in claiming rejection of the move to ‘abrogate’ Article 370 by Modi Govt describing it as “mini referendum”. Their claim is based on winning 112 seats and controlling at least 11 districts. But controlling majority of the district cannot be called referendum even if the PAGD has also sought votes for restoration of special status and against BJP.
What is referendum? Not necessarily going by the international concept but even the common understanding of it doesn’t fit in this claim. No election is a referendum even though it can remove a mighty Govt or give verdict on the policies of the party in power. Dictionary meaning of referendum is a “vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion a particular political or social question”. There was no specific issue on which vote was sought across the UT by all parties but even if PAGD made restoration of special status as main issue for election in Kashmir, still winning only 112 seats of 278 seats is by no means a clear verdict in their favour. Falling short of 50 % of total seats, PAGD actually lost the ” mini referendum”.
The ‘referendum’ or people’s verdict cannot be decided by the seats won by PAGD but the votes won by it or it’s winning candidates. The votes of the winning candidates are never same with the size of the electorate hugely varies like large electorate of rural Jammu district can account for three four districts of the Valley. Just see that 17508 votes polled by the winning candidate from Khour, Jammu are nearly three times more than the total votes (6221) polled by all the 14 winning candidates of Srinagar District which actually routed NC, once its bastion.
The PAGD could get 6.50 lakhs votes out of 28.55 lakh votes polled for 278 constituencies which is only 22.76 % votes. Against them, BJP alone polled 7.09 lakh votes (24.83%) and with APNI Party, it goes up to 8.60 lakh votes (30.12 %). This number further goes up by adding votes polled by Panthers Party and BSP which too supported abrogation of Article 370. Even Congress with 3.95 lakh votes too didn’t side with PAGD because on this vital issue, its support to PAGD later on to control DDCs notwithstanding. To sum up this available published data as many 22.05 lakh voters out of 28.55 lakh voters who exercised right of franchise didn’t vote for PAGD.
Another analysis is the votes of winning candidates that is the actual mandate. Seventy five BJP winning candidates have got 5.02 lakh votes as compared to 3.90 lakh votes polled by PAGD’s 112 winning candidates.
With this outcome, how could PADG claim vindication of its demand for restoration of Article 370? Moreover, members of the DDC and managing office of Chairman is part of governance and has nothing to do with any political and constitutional issue.
The BJP conducted very high profile campaign especially in Kashmir while restricting the movement of some of the leaders of PAGD as alleged by them. But the dividend of their massive effort was only in the shape consolation of opening the account in Kashmir with paltry three seats and increase of its vote share to 3.3 % in 2020 from 2.2 % in Assembly elections and 1.3% of 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Like past hard fought elections, this election too polarized J&K. In the Muslim majority 11 districts, PAGD won 57% seats followed by 32% seats by Independents and others, 9% by the Congress and only 2% by BJP. In 5 districts of mixed population, BJP has fared better than PAGD by winning 35% seats as compared to 31% seats by PAGD, 20% seats by Congress and 10% seats by Independents and others. In four Hindu majority districts, BJP secured 86% seats as compared to 4% seats by PAGD, 10% seats by Independents and others while the Congress failed to get any seats. Even in this analysis, BJP is the gainer as it opened its account in entirely Muslim districts whereas PAGD parties had been getting seats in other two categories of districts.
Another interesting debate took place between Haseeb Drabu and Ram Madhav on the issue of direct election to DDC in J&K by amending J&K Panchayati Raj Act of 1989. In other states there are no direct election as members of DDCs are elected by Sarpanches. Drabu named these DDCs as ‘district assemblies’and questioned provision of elected ‘third forum’ after State Assembly and the Parliament, which are mandated by the Constitution. Ram Madhav joined issue with him and brought in Sheikh Mohd Abdullah’s concept of unelected District Development Boards headed by the concerned Dy. Commissioner to decentralize the planning and development in the erstwhile J&K State.
The issue of direct election to DDC is, in fact, welcome step as it involves people at grassroot level in the process of development. The elected members, now fully empowered,have mandate of the people and in term accountable to them. The logic of ‘district assemblies’ as third forum besides mandated two elected forum of State Assemblies and the Parliament gets constitutional counter in directly elected Municipal Corporations and Committees where too we have elected members who debate on development matters of their wards. Why did a learned person like Drabu find fault with elected DDC members? Yes, it has curtailed the role of MLAs who, in fact, were opposing fully democratically elected 3-tier Panchayati Raj in J&K. Yes, it is valid issue to question as to how and why all districts were given equal number of 14 constituencies irrespective of their size of population and territorial area. There doesn’t seem to have any rationale except that SEA and UT administration perhaps wanted to steer away from the allegations of political, regional imbalance and regional discrimination.
The real outcome of this path breaking democratic exercise is that emotive political issues like restoration of special status no longer attract the people who are driven to polling booths in the winter chill by their concern for local development. This mandate of development needed to be respected. Anti- defection law should be applied to the members to prevent aya-ram-gaya-ram.
Political veterans and newly emerging grassroot leadership must accept the message with humility and desist from carrying forward the 70 years old self-defeating political agenda, albeit gimmicks, that has ruined J&K. By taking oath of Constitution of India by DDC members, the issue of integration and uniformity of all administrative and constitutional systems across the country should finally be settled. It is time for DDC members in both regions to come up with new ideas and development strategy with all inclusive ideology that alone can make the life of the people better in J&K in a sustained peaceful environment.