Massive response to 1st elections in UT of J&K after August 2019
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
JAMMU: Kashmir-based mainstream opposition parties’ decision to form an anti-BJP conglomerate and to participate in the first District Development Council (DDC) elections in the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir has put many speculations to an end. All the political analysts who were sceptical about the prospects of the Indian authorities holding a dignified democratic exercise after abrogation of Article 370 and the erstwhile State’s division into the two UTs in August 2019 have been proved wrong.
The DDC elections, coupled with filling up of over 13,000 Panch and Sarpanch vacancies in an 8-phase electoral exercise from November 28 to December 22, in which over 6 million adults have the right to vote, are drawing a substantial response from the people as well as the political parties. Significantly, not one party has stayed away. And, more significantly, unlike in the past, no separatist or militant organisation has called for a boycott.
Some tweets, interviews and statements from the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), including the former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, earlier this year, had cast the shadows of uncertainty with regard to the Kashmiris’ participation in any elections post-2019. Taking a moral high ground, these leaders had asserted that they would not be contesting any elections as long as J&K continued as UT and until the Statehood and the special status under Article 370 were restored.
Days after the government announced the first DDC elections, which also happen to be the UT’s first universal adult franchise, seven of the valley-based parties in the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) decided to contest the same “unitedly”. The NC and the PDP are playing the key role in creating a front against the BJP and the Apni Party (AP). The Communist Party of India (Marxist) too is a constituent of the PAGD.
The Congress party stayed away tactfully till completion of the Bihar Assembly elections. Immediately after the results were declared in Bihar, the Congress party began asserting itself as an electoral ally of the PAGD. The J&K Pradesh Congress Committee announced to share seats with the PAGD even as both fielded their candidates separately in the first two phases of the DDC elections.
It is now clearly a straight fight of the valley-based regional parties, the Congress and the CPI (M) with the BJP. The Apni Party has also been filing nominations separately. Favouring restoration of the Statehood but compromising on Article 370, the Apni Party is being widely perceived as the BJP’s friendly. It comprises most of the dissidents, including former Ministers and legislators, who have deserted the PDP in the last two years.
As of now, more than 600 candidates have filed nomination papers for the first two phases of the polling for DDCs. The DDC elections are being held in 280 seats-14 in each district. In phase-I, there are 43 seats-25 in Kashmir and 18 in Jammu. As many as 352 candidates-183 in Kashmir and 169 in Jammu-have filed nominations in the phase-I for which the polling would be held on November 28. For the vacant seats of Panches and Sarpanches going to polls in the Phase-I on November 28, there has been an equally enthusiastic response. While 360 candidates have filed papers for the Sarpanch seats, as many as 1,761 have jumped into the fray for the Panch seats. This is in sharp contrast to the voters’ as well as the contestants’ mood and morale in all elections held in the valley after the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections of 2014.
As the militants and the separatists reclaimed their base, particularly on the ideological front, during Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s and Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP-BJP coalition regime in 2015-18, neither of the Chief Ministers looked willing to conduct the much-delayed Panchayati and the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) elections.
Polling was never held for the Anantnag-Pulwama Lok Sabha seat that fell vacant after Mehbooba took over as CM after Mufti’s death in January 2016. It was cancelled indefinitely as the interim election on the Srinagar-Budgam Lok Sabha seat-that had fallen vacant due to the resignation of PDP’s Tariq Hamid Kara-witnessed widespread violence in April 2017.
Even after the breakdown of Ms Mufti’s government, both the Panchayati as well as the ULB elections in 2018 witnessed a dismal voter turnout in the valley. There were single or no candidates in many of the constituencies. As many as 13,000 seats, mostly in Kashmir, remained vacant in the Panchayat elections when neither the voters nor the candidates demonstrated enthusiasm for a host of reasons including the threats from terrorists and the boycott by the NC and the PDP.
Obviously the Government of India has a remarkable stake in the success of the first elections being held after its drastic interventions and transformations in August 2019. The valley parties are in the fray as their absence would have given monopoly to the BJP and the Apni Party in all the 20 DDCs which have the stream of the Block Development Council (BDC) chairpersons already dominated by the BJP, the independents leaning towards the BJP and the Congress. The third stream of MLAs will be automatically filled with the Assembly elections as and when held in J&K.
Smooth and successful DDC elections with a massive turnout would also deflate the anti-Indian narrative of “lockdown, suppression of rights and disempowerment of the Kashmiris” sustained in the foreign press over the last 16 months.