The political exercise in Jammu and Kashmir offers a few indications and markers about the Union Territory’s future and the changing dynamics between a troubled region and the Indian state.
Shortly after the results for the District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir came in on Wednesday, BJP leader Amit Malviya posted on Twitter that the “BJP has not just emerged as the single largest party but has also got more votes than the NC, PDP and Congress put together. This is the beginning of development-oriented politics. J&K wants to move ahead…”
In the recently held District Development Council elections in J&K, the BJP has not just emerged as the single largest party but has also got more votes than the NC, PDP and Congress put together.
This is the beginning of development oriented politics. J&K wants to move ahead…
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) December 23, 2020
Not to be outdone, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted: “It’s amusing to see the desperation of the BJP propaganda wallas. Yesterday it was about 3 seats in the valley & today it’s about being the single largest party. They aren’t even embarrassed about making comparisons with @jknc (sic) which contested far fewer seats due to an alliance.”
It’s amusing to see the desperation of the BJP propaganda wallas. Yesterday it was about 3 seats in the valley & today it’s about being the single largest party. They aren’t even embarrassed about making comparisons with @jknc which contested far fewer seats due to an alliance
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) December 23, 2020
These claims and counterclaims will continue, and just as well. It is refreshing to see the cut and thrust of electoral politics resume in Jammu and Kashmir instead of the spraying of bullets and bombs. The beleaguered state — now a Union Territory — has suffered a lot, and its people have been denied a chance for decades to take part in a truly representative electoral process that makes the people a stakeholder in nation-building and allows their aspirations a reasonable shot at fulfilment.
Between Pakistan’s sponsoring of terrorism, fueling of grievance narrative and religious fanaticism against the Indian state, drying up of economic activities and the stultified democratic process in the Valley where power remained centred around a few elite families in a sort of closed-loop politics, Kashmir’s alienation from India grew.
Instead of a sense of alignment, the new generation in the Valley developed an interminable rage against the Indian state that presented the perfect opportunity for a set of politicians the possibility of arbitraging the political process and for Indian adversaries, the chance to fan separatism, aid terrorism and fuel perpetual violent unrest.
Something had to give. And it did. As Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar had said last year while speaking at Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, on India’s decision to abrogate Article 370: “When we came back to power this May and did a Kashmir review, there were two choices. One was you had a set of policies which were on the books for seventy years. But for the last forty years, they were visibly not working. And, by the way, when I say visibly not working, that meant in the last thirty years forty-two thousand people got killed… So the choices were either you continue what was clearly not working or you try something very different. And I think the decision was to try something very different.”
If normalcy is tiptoeing into the restive Valley and elsewhere in Jammu and Kashmir through the fair and successful conduction of electoral process at the grassroots level — giving rise to a potentially new set of local young leaders, then the significance of the reading down of Article 370 by the Narendra Modi government must be acknowledged. The abrogation and the decisions that followed thereafter forced a ‘reset’ of politics in Jammu and Kashmir, and the peaceful holding of the elections — that saw increased voter participation — is as close to a validation of the Centre’s move as it gets.
If we look at even traditionally low-turnout areas, the DDC polls have seen higher participation compared to the last electoral process that took place before the abrogation. Srinagar recorded 35.3 percent votes, a big jump from the 7.9 percent turnout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and 14.50 percent in the 2018 panchayat polls. Awantipora, that recorded 0.4 percent turnout in 2018 panchayat polls and 3 percent in 2019 general elections, saw 9.9 percent polling this time. Anantnag witnessed 24.9 percent polling, a significant rise from the 9.3 percent in 2018 and 13.8 percent in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
There’s more. One of the ideas behind Centre’s Kashmir policy was to deny political elites of the Valley the ability to corner power to cement their arbitraging rights and allow political power to percolate to the grassroots in the hope of encouraging the young generation to become a part of India’s democratic process, stitch a future for themselves and the people they represent.
In absence of an elected assembly in Jammu and Kashmir — likely to be held after delimitation of constituencies — elections that were held at a hyper-local level for the district development council provided the only chance for the electorate to take part in the democratic process post abrogation.
The DDC bodies are legitimate institutions of representative democracy in both urban and rural areas, and it is heartening to see as many as 49 Independents managing to win out of 280 seats across Jammu and Kashmir. In many districts the UT, these representatives will become the district chairman, and be in direct touch with their constituents.
This gives an indication that people in J&K are ready to invest in a new crop of leaders. This is a message of hope in a region which seemed devoid of it for the last few years. The 49 Independents together have won 1,71,420 votes, way more than Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP — one of the key members of the Gupkar Alliance. The victory of seven Independent candidates in 14 seats in Srinagar (a strike rate of 50 percent) is more than Srinagar-based People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), that won five seats. Clearly, the Independents, who have now emerged as kingmakers, found at least some takers for their campaign slogan of “free of political baggage”. This is not a trivial development.
The political exercise in J&K offers a few indications and markers about the Union Territory’s future and the changing dynamics between a troubled region and the Indian state.
One, the hyper-local polls allow democracy to seep in at the grassroots, give agency to people and their representatives, create a social compact (and even contract) between the two. The successful conducting of elections also lessens somewhat the pool of those who are still sceptical of the democratic process and provides a crucial reference point.
Second, the J&K administration deserves praise for holding elections that were largely incident-free, fair and peaceful. This is the only effective antidote to the poison spread by Pakistan. The neutralising of a terrorist may instigate martyrdom and fuel further the grievance and victimhood narratives — powerful forces that terrorists exploit — but a peaceful conducting of elections that kickstarts the process of electoral democracy provides people with an option for a shot at a normal life — be a part of the India growth story, get close to fulfilling aspirations. This won’t be easy and replicating this process at higher levels may bring stiff challenges, but the quest for peace is an equally powerful motivation.
The fact that people in a region that has been relentlessly targeted by Pakistan for subversive activities and violence and made the subject of its proxy war with India are still ready to embrace and endorse Indian democratic system must count as a setback for Pakistan. It also raises cautious optimism in India.
Third, BJP’s winning of three seats in Kashmir provides opportunities for regional silos to be broken in J&K politics. If the BJP manages to hold its own in Kashmir and even increase footprint while competing with Gupkar parties for influence in Jammu, its bastion, then the political battlelines will have to be reset. This augurs well for the robustness of the democratic process despite the apparent regional divide.
Fourth, BJP threw a lot of resources into the elections, sent its heavyweight ministers for campaigning and went in to the maidan on a slogan of development. It has emerged as the single-largest party with 74 seats ahead of National Conference (67), People’s Democratic Party (27) and the Congress (26), and the total number of votes in its kitty (4,87,364) beats the combined tally of all three.
Jammu and Kashmir DDC elections tally at 9.30 am:
National Conference – 67
Independent – 49
J&K PDP: 27
Apni Party: 12
(Data source: J&K State Election Authority) pic.twitter.com/z5KHPm3pAV
— ANI (@ANI) December 23, 2020
The Gupkar Alliance has won more seats but BJP managed to open its account in Kashmir for the first time, winning one ward each in Pulwama, Bandipora and Srinagar. This has the potential to trigger a tectonic shift in national politics. It not only adds to BJP’s clout — given the party has a presence now in almost the length and breadth of the nation — but by getting a toehold in a region which was considered out of its reach, the BJP has thrown open myriad possibilities and realignments.
Fifth, the Gupkar Alliance has done well in participating in the electoral process. It goes to show that the parties are ready to fight the rough and tumble of electoral politics. However, the claims by Abdullah or Mufti — that the results are a vindication of their stand against Article 370 — are devoid of merit. The very holding of polls, the success of BJP, Independents and Apni Party — that stayed away from anti-abrogation plank — show that Centre’s decision has been validated. It is time for the Gupkar parties, and J&K, to move on.
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