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District polls mark paradigm shift in Kashmir politics

District polls mark paradigm shift in Kashmir politics

In what seems to be a paradigm shift in Kashmir politics, a large number of local independent candidates in the first District Development Council (DDC) elections are fiercely exploiting the dissatisfaction among the masses over the poor quality of governance delivered by the previous regimes, to pose a strong challenge to all the traditional political parties.

For instance, the Assembly constituency of Handwara in northern Kashmir has remained a major battleground between the mainstream political giants, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC) and late Abdul Gani Lone’s Peoples Conference (PC). Many of the Assembly elections have witnessed Kashmir’s toughest electoral battles here.

Since 1967, Lone and his family have retained Handwara, directly and indirectly, as many as five times. His arch rival, Choudhary Mohammad Ramzan of the NC, has been the winner four times. The valley’s fiercest electoral battle happened in Handwara in 1983 when Ramzan polled 17,575 votes and Lone 17,565.

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Now Lone’s son, Sajad, who was returned in 2014 and has functioned as a cabinet Minister from the BJP quota in the PDP-BJP government until Mehbooba Mufti’s dismissal in 2018, is holding the mantle for the PC. For the first time, the PC and the NC are both constituents of Farooq Abdullah-led Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — a valley-based conglomerate “to keep away the BJP from power”.

The NC, the PC, and also Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, are known to have fielded ‘proxy candidates’ to ensure one another’s defeat in several DDC segments across Kupwara district. None of the PAGD constituents look satisfied over its share of seats in the alliance. Even as the senior leaders are tight-lipped, their cadres reveal how the PAGD constituents were ‘undercutting’ each other. Officially the ‘proxies’ are contesting as independent candidates but their affiliation to different parties and politicians is no secret.

As of now, nobody knows the fate of the DDC candidates as only two phases of the polling have been completed and the results would be out on the day of the counting on December 22. The polling for the rest six phases would be completed on December 19.

However, the results of the Panches and the Sarpanches are potentially surprising for the PAGD parties in Kashmir. Alongside the DDC elections, by-elections are currently underway for around 12,700 vacancies of Panches and Sarpanches. Most of the wards in Kashmir had remained vacant due to a lukewarm response to the elections in 2018.
Unlike the DDC elections, results of the Panches and the Sarpanches are announced at the end of the counting of such votes on a scheduled day of the polling.

The NC and the PDP had boycotted the Panchayati and the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) elections in 2018. Consequently, most of the winners in these elections were independent candidates. Many of them have been silently working for the BJP.

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It was because of this composition that the BJP managed to get an independent councillor elected as mayor in Srinagar Municipal Corporation last week. Elected Panches and Sarpanches have already dominated the Block Development Councils (BDCs). Chairpersons of the BDCs, the MLAs of a district besides the 14 representatives being elected currently in each of the 20 districts, would form a DDC.

A multitude of highly excited voters was seen celebrating the victory of an independent contestant, Mohammad Yasin Bhat, with the trademark victory signs and slogans and firecrackers at Vilgam in Handwara area on Tuesday, December 1. Outsiders seem surprised that PC’s candidate, Bashir Ahmad, supported officially by the NC and the PDP, has lost to an independent.

The insiders, however, have expected similar results across the valley. “The alliance has not permeated down to the grassroots. In all such alliances, we have bitter experience that a party’s supporters do not vote for traditional rivals”, said a senior NC leader. The Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) president, Ghulam Ahmad
Mir, endorsed. “Most of the time, we fail to convert our vote for the party or the candidate we have opposed throughout”, Mir asserted.

Reports from all ten districts in Kashmir indicate infighting among the PAGD constituents.

"Nobody knows who would emerge as the beneficiary but it is clear enough that some independent candidate or a proxy of a traditional giant in a segment would be benefited”, said a senior politician who has contested six elections since 1972. An identical scenario is springing in Jammu where the Congress and the PAGD were failing to get much of a vote in some districts but the BJP too was losing ground to independents.

The Central Kashmir district of Budgam has completed polling in three DDC segments of Khansahab, Khag and Beerwah. According to independent observers, former Minister Hakeem Yasin’s independent candidate fared well in Khansahab. The PDP rebel Nazir Khan, who gave a tough fight to Omar Abdullah in the 2014 Assembly elections but failed to get the PAGD ticket last month, is contesting the alliance candidate in Beerwah. Residents believe his victory is ‘certain’.

Interestingly in Kupwara’s Drugmulla segment, the BJP has fielded seven independent candidates in addition to one official candidate.

In Jammu too, where the BJP maintained a strong pro-Modi sentiment in almost all elections from 2014 to 2019, there is seemingly no wave in favour of or against any political party. The BJP has already shown some reverses in the Panchayati and the ULB elections of 2018 and consequently in the BDC polls of 2019. Only the Congress party’s infighting and failure to come up as a strong opposition outfit could give some advantage to the BJP.

In all the Muslim-dominated districts of Doda, Kishtwar, Reasi, Ramban, Rajouri and Poonch, there are multi-pronged contests between different parties and independent candidates. It would not be surprising if the independents emerge as the ‘single largest party’ in the current DDC elections..