“High-Polling” Srinagar constituency

Anil Anand
Higher polling in Kashmir a greatest testament to rightness of abrogating Article 370
– Home Minister Amit Shah-
This is the people’s way to convey a message to the Centre on the decisions of August 5, 2019. The decisions of the Centre were not accepted by the people of Kashmir
-PDP chief and ex-Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti-
These diverse reactions to what has been perceived to be “high polling” (by Kashmir standards) in Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, followed by Baramullah, once the hot-bed of militancy, protests and stone-pelting, is an index of political complexities that the Kashmir Valley suffers from. It may sound amusing in rest of the country particularly politically hot-beads of UP and Bihar but 38 percent voter turnout in Srinagar is historic given the local circumstances.
A look at the voting patterns in Srinagar- it was first of the three Valley constituency to go for polls under the gaze of post August 5, 2019 Constitutional developments related to abrogation of Article 370. The previous best in the recent past was 40.94 percent in 1996, 25.86 percent in 2014 and 14.43 percent in 2019.
So, there is a reason for the government of the day to rejoice. The election was held in a peaceful manner without even a single incident of violence. More so without any reports of coercion or force being applied to pull out the voters, as had been witnessed during many previous elections.
In the light of the statements of two political leaders of divergent ideologies and views, ironically BJP-PDP were allies in the last government that the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had, it is but natural to generate a debate as to the reason behind “high polling” in the new oasis of peace.
Is it really the people’s testament to abrogation of Article 370? Or was the voter turnout an expression of resentment to August 5, 2019 constitutional changes that took away the special status and demoted the state to a Union Territory without taking the people into confidence?
Both the leaders are politically correct in their respective observations. Made in the midst of poll season, obviously, they were addressing their target audiences and vote-bank. Where does the public (Kashmiri) view stand in the midst of this dichotomy? After all, the debate and the corresponding interest in Kashmir election has been generated by the people’s turnout.
However, this is not to say that there is no resentment in the Valley post abrogation of Article 370 and demotion of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir to Union Territory. There is a feeling of suppression and aggrievement that destiny of the people was decided without taking them into confidence. The “high voter turnout” reflects a more positive approach and changed strategy to register their resentment through Electronic Voting Machines (EVM).
The gun has replaced the EVM. This should be taken as an opportunity by the powers that be to establish direct contact with people and address their rightful feelings. A similar approach is required in Jammu region as well the Union Territory of Ladakh where high voter participation should also be viewed in the similar spirit.
Mr Shah as Home Minister is well within his right to take credit for the “high voter turnout”. Full credit to the administration and plethora of security agencies for providing a peaceful atmosphere for the voters to come out and vote.
On political front it is altogether a different story. The ruling dispensation taking credit for “high turnout” makes an interesting reading if juxtaposed with the ground reality that the BJP is not contesting Lok Sabha elections in Kashmir. In fact, the world’s biggest and strongest political party is supporting a new political outfit- Apni Party- which had germinated by way of new political experimentation in Jammu and Kashmir and comprises of defectors gathered from all other non-BJP parties.
Question arises, and as stated by Mr Shah, if by voting in numbers people of Srinagar affixed a stamp on August 5, 2019 constitutional changes, then why did the BJP opt out of the contest. Was it the fear of defeat ahead of the impending assembly elections- to be conducted before September 30 as directed by the Supreme Court- which could have resulted in loss of face before the real test (assembly elections) that held the BJP back?
Again, it is credit-worthy for the government to have helped in creating a congenial atmosphere for the people to step out. This became an enabler for them to come out and give vent to their feelings on a redressal mechanism provided by the EVMs. Prior to that, since 2018, there was neither such an atmosphere nor occasion for the people to express views. Could that be the reason for “high turnout” in Srinagar and Baramullah constituencies?
The ruling dispensation’s theory to see “high turnout” as vindication of abrogation of Article 370 would certainly have gained more currency and credibility had the BJP fielded candidates on all the three Lok Sabha constituencies of Kashmir. Furthermore, laying heavy stakes on an inconsequential Apni Party, perceived as the ‘B’ team of BJP, further takes the sheen of the BJP leaders’ claim of “high turnout” as vindication of their Kashmir policy.
It also smacks of the BJP strategists, unsure of the party’s strength, looking at newer options in Kashmir Valley ahead of the assembly elections. The fact that the party leadership has made no bones about its political disliking of the established political parties such as Dr Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference, Ms Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and of course, the Congress. The top leadership of the BJP has berated them in the worst possible manner through the election campaign.
The advent of Apni Party and former Congress veteran Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) has only added to the political confusion in Jammu and Kashmir particularly Kashmir Valley. Mr Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference, an old BJP ally in the BJP-PDP coalition government, further adds to it.
To survive out draw political mileage out of confusion is also an art. And part of this confusion, in the current context, has been breaking the political parties and poaching the MPs and MLAs. Interestingly, Apni Party founder Mr Altaf Bukhari, a businessman turned politician, is a former PDP leader and minister in the BJP-PDP coalition government before he was propped by the Centre after the state was broken into two Union Territories.
There is definitely a positive side of the “high turnout” of voters which anyone can deny at one’s own peril. It certainly is an ode to the democratic process and strong indication of people’s (Kashmiris’) faith in the process of free and fair elections.
The things could have been different had the ruling party of the day, BJP, contested elections in Kashmir. It would have not only further strengthened the democratic process but also added to the confidence of the people in the democratic institutions. Who knows which way the people would have voted?
In a democratic set up voting is also a way of expressing confidence or not in a particularly political party or a leader. By abstaining from elections in Kashmir Valley, the BJP has deprived the people of this mechanism. Elections, under peculiar circumstances, are not always fought to be won. This was one such occasion for the BJP where its participation would have mattered much more than the victory or defeat.
It is also indicative of the fact that democratic means of expression should not be either suppressed or prolonged without assigning any reason. A prolonged spell of suppression of right to expression, be it through voting or through other democratic means, can prove to be anti-thetical to any effort at establishing peace.
It is in this context that the entire gamut of constitutional changes that came into being from August 5, 2019, has to be reviewed and looked into. The things would have been entirely different had the Narendra Modi government re-established the statehood status of Jammu and Kashmir before Lok Sabha elections, as a first step towards winning the confidence of the people in the Union Territory.
One does not know what prevented the current ruling dispensation from holding assembly elections to the Union Territory assembly if not restoring statehood. The ideal situation that would have delivered political dividend to BJP even to some extent in Kashmir, was to restore statehood before holding assembly election. The assembly elections should have been conducted as depriving Jammu and Kashmir of an elected local government almost for six years runs contrary to the grain of democracy.
In this backdrop the “high turnout” of voters in Srinagar constituency is certainly a milestone. Whether it benefits the ruling BJP or not, it is immaterial in a broader context. The tempo built by people’s participation in the process of ballot should necessarily be sustained.