The resumption of the democratic process in Jammu & Kashmir augurs well
It had been ventured in the EFSAS Commentary titled Formation of the Apni Party in Jammu & Kashmir: Has the thaw begun? in March this year that the resumption of the democratic process was an important component of the healing and resolution that needed to occur in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The thaw that was then envisaged is now, just eight months down the line, actually taking firm shape by way of the elections to the District Development Councils (DDCs) being held across J&K since 28 November. The fact that all the major political parties that claim to have a stake in J&K are contesting these local body elections with vigor and verve, with each side having a different but equally compelling tale to tell, the essence of the democratic process pitting contrasting ideologies, objectives and methods against each other appears to be fully in play at these elections. The winners and losers will only be known by the end of this year, but judging from the two phases of the elections that have been held so far, it is democracy that is likely to emerge as a major gainer.
The process to kick start the stalled democratic process in J&K got underway on 17 October this year when the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 was amended to include a new layer of governance in the form of the DDCs, which together with the Panchayats and Block Development Councils (BDCs) would constitute the three tiers of Panchayati Raj Institutions. The DDCs, which will replace the District Planning and Development Boards in all districts, will be elected for five-year terms. They will oversee the functioning of the Panchayats and the BDCs. The DDCs are expected to prepare and approve district plans and capital expenditures across the region. Each of the 20 DDC in J&K will have 14 directly-elected members headed by a chairman, and five standing committees will be constituted for finance, development, public works, health and education and welfare.
Simultaneously with the new DDC elections, bye-elections to vacant Panchayat seats and 228 vacant seats in the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are also being held. The last elections to the Panchayats in J&K were held in 2018, in which out of the total of 33,592 panch and 4,290 sarpanch seats, only 22,214 panches and 3,459 sarpanches had been elected. Further vacancies had accumulated due to the deaths and resignations of elected panches and sarpanches. Also, as a result of the election of the chairpersons of BDCs in October 2019, another 307 seats of panches and sarpanches had fallen vacant. The bye-elections to these 1,088 vacant sarpanch and over 12,000 panch seats are also being held now.
The elections commenced on 28 November, on which day the first phase of voting was held. The second phase was held on 2 December. In all, there will be eight phases of voting that will conclude on 19 December. The results are expected to be declared by the last week of December.
The trend in the two phases in which voting has already taken place has demonstrated the keen interest that the elections have generated in residents of J&K. The first phase of the DDC elections was held across 20 districts and close to 700,000 voters were eligible to cast their votes in favour of their chosen candidate out of the 296 that were in the fray. The voter turnout was at a high 51.76 percent, despite the political turmoil that J&K has been through in recent times and the bitter chill of a winter that has set in early. Polling was by and large peaceful in all the 43 constituencies covered in this phase. The second phase was similar. It covered 43 constituencies, with a total of 760,664 voters eligible to choose from among the 321 candidates who contested. J&K State election commissioner K.K. Sharma informed that 48.62 percent of the electorate had exercised their franchise, and that “The polling percentage was 33.34% in Kashmir and 65.54% in Jammu division”. He added that “Overall, the situation in all 20 districts was fine. There was no untoward incident reported in Jammu or Kashmir. Only a single incident of an argument over validity of the identity proof of a person took place in Jammu”.
The Panchayat and ULB bye-elections were equally well represented. Sharma informed on 29 November that “The first phase of maiden bye-elections to vacant seats of Panchayat level bodies has recorded 64 percent and 57 percent polling turnout here on Saturday”. After the second phase, Sharma said on 3 December that 65.54 percent polling was recorded in the by-polls to the vacant panch seats and 52.24 percent for the sarpanch seats. Sharma added that the DDC and Panchayat elections will play a decisive and catalytic role towards development of the people at the grass root level.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is essentially pitted against all other parties contesting these elections, barring the Apni Party, which is widely viewed in J&K as having been propped up by the BJP. Although these are only local body elections, the stakes are high for both the BJP and the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a grouping comprising all of J&K’s mainstream political parties who have chosen to transcend the considerable differences that existed between them to put up a united front against the BJP’s moves of 5 August 2019. The Congress party, earlier an important player in J&K, no longer appears to be a force to be reckoned with. The confusion displayed by the party in first indicating that it was a part of the PAGD, only to later retract from this position, has given the impression that the Congress was not as serious a player in J&K as it would like to be.
The BJP, quite the contrary, is approaching the DDC elections with great energy and belief. The party’s verve can be attributed as much to the confidence that comes from winning election after election, sometimes against the odds, as it can to a keen comprehension of the far ranging benefits that can accrue from a hard-fought victory in J&K. The party will believe that a win will signify a popular endorsement of its 5 August 2019 moves by the people of J&K. Not only will this impact favourably on the already considerable popularity that the party enjoys in most other parts of India, it will also serve to inhibit any potential uncomfortable questions from the new dispensation in the United States (US) come January. If a question is nevertheless asked, a response that invokes democracy should, quite clearly, suffice. At the ground level, the BJP will believe that control over a majority of DDCs will enable it to earnestly get the developmental model that it has in mind for J&K on the road and running.
The messaging of the BJP has been that of a party that is preparing to win a decisive battle. The party has deputed several central leaders, including union ministers, to campaign actively in J&K. One such minister, Dr. Jitendra Singh, declared on 30 November that Kashmir was ushering in a new dawn of democracy, which was truly going to be people’s democracy and not a democracy held to ransom by any dynasty. The BJP’s national spokesperson, Shahnawaz Hussain, said that “The BJP will get the majority of seats not only in Jammu but Kashmir as well. The DDC polls are for development and prosperity”. He added that the regional parties were scared of the BJP and had to form an alliance “because they feared the imminent loss”.
The PAGD consists of the National Conference (NC) led by Farooq Abdullah, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mehbooba Mufti, the Peoples Conference (PC) led by Sajad Lone, the Awami National Conference (ANC), the Jammu Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), and the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M). These J&K-centered parties overcame their stated reluctance to participate in any election till the measures of 5 August 2019 were reversed when the realization dawned that the battle confronting them was one of their survival and relevance. As Professor Noor Ahmad Baba of the Department of Politics and Governance at the Central University of Kashmir was quoted as saying, “The regional parties now face a predicament. Boycott and risk getting marginalised as was the case when they boycotted the urban local body and panchayat polls in 2018. Or accept the polls and get painted as legitimizing the central government’s last year’s decision of abrogating Article 370”. The PAGD, in reasoning similar but converse to the BJP’s, will believe that a victory for their grouping would denote a desire of the people of J&K to return to a pre-5 August 2019 status.
The debate between the two primary opponents stacked against each other in the keenly contested DDC elections in J&K has had the tendency to be rather shrill, and sometimes even provocative. Allegations and counter-allegations have been made by both sides, and the ideological and political divergence between the BJP and the PAGD are starkly on display. But such debate, even if inflamed, only adds to the democratic process. As K.K. Sharma described it, “There has been an enthusiastic atmosphere prevailing in Kashmir, as contestants, particularly youth participants, are coming forward for promotion of democracy”.
Two noteworthy aspects of the DDC elections thus far have been the near obliteration of the separatist Pakistan-backed Hurriyat Conference from the political landscape of J&K, and the peaceful atmosphere in which the elections are being conducted. This peace has been maintained despite attempts by Pakistan to disrupt the elections in a major way. After Indian security forces had killed four heavily armed terrorists at Nagrota in J&K on 19 November, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a press release said that “Initial reports indicate the attackers to be members of Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist organization proscribed by the United Nations and several countries. The Government of India expressed its serious concerns at continued terror attacks by JeM against India. The huge cache of arms, ammunition and explosive material indicate detailed planning for a major attack to destabilise the peace and security in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, in particular, to derail the ongoing democratic exercise of conduct of local District Development Council elections”.
That the planned JeM attack was of a serious nature can be gauged from the fact that the Pakistani Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi was summoned to the MEA and a strong protest was lodged over the attempted attack. “It was demanded that Pakistan desists from its policy of supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from its territory and dismantle the terror infrastructure operated by terrorist outfits to launch attacks in other countries”. India also conveyed that Pakistan needs to “fulfil its international obligations and bilateral commitments to not allow any territory under its control to be used for terrorism against India in any manner”. Ambassadors of several important countries were also briefed on the planned attacks.
Pakistan’s attempt to target the DDC elections is predicated on its assessment that peaceful, participatory election in J&K can be the most forceful demonstration of the resilience of democracy. The successful conduct of the elections and the high voter turnout in J&K are conveying the clear message to everyone, Pakistan included, that the predominant majority of the people of J&K continue to favour democratic ways, as they had done in 1947 when they opted for a democratic India.
The wait to learn which ideology has prevailed in J&K, which future has been deemed more desirable by its people, will last almost a month, but what is already clear is that beyond all the narratives and options put forth to them the people of J&K have chosen democracy.