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J&K District elections show democracy is alive and kicking in Kashmir

J&K District elections show democracy is alive and kicking in Kashmir

In the results declared on Tuesday, the Kashmiris have experienced arguably their cleanest ever democratic process, after the Assembly elections of 1977, even as no political party reached close to the half-way mark of 140 seats in the first elections for District Development Councils (DDCs) in the Union Territory.

The eight-phased polling on 280 seats—14 in each district—concluded on December 19 across Jammu and Kashmir as a large number of the candidates and voters participated in an election with enthusiasm for the first time after the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections of 2014. These elections are particularly significant for being the first democratic exercise conducted by the Indian authorities after abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A and break-up of the State into the union territories of J&K and Ladakh in August 2019.

In contrast to the highest turnout Lok Sabha elections of 1984 and the Assembly elections of 1987, the eventful Lok Sabha elections of 1989 were a historic failure in the valley as only 3-5 per cent voters exercised their right to franchise in South and North Kashmir. Nobody even filed nomination papers against the then ruling National Conference (NC) candidate Mohammad Shafi Bhat in Central Kashmir.

Allegations of massive rigging and unfair means had marred the credibility of all the elections held in Jammu and Kashmir during the Congress regime for about 30 years.

The people of J&K witnessed the first free and fair elections during Morarji Desai’s government at the Centre in 1977 when the ruling Janata Party lost all but two seats of Eidgah and Handwara to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s NC in the valley. The NC swept as many as 38 out of 42 seats across Kashmir, plus more in Jammu. Then Governor L.K. Jha is still remembered for building a trust in the Kashmiris for India’s democracy and institutions.

Immediately after the Congress returned to power in 1980, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi began pursuing her ambition of regaining power in J&K. A sequence of dubious developments culminated into alienation and loss of faith among the Kashmiris in the Indian democracy. It made the ground fertile for General Zia-ul- Haq’s Operation Topac and the valley landed into an abyss in December 1989.

Notwithstanding a progressive turnout in the post-1996 elections, there were allegations of coercion from several quarters. Some high turnout elections were held between 2011 and 2014. However, the response was cool or lukewarm again from the common people who didn’t come out in big numbers to exercise their right to vote during the PDP-BJP government.

By the time the Centre in August 2019 abrogated Article 370 and 35-A, granting a special constitutional status to J&K, cynics and conspiracy theorists began asserting that nobody would anymore participate in the Indian elections in Kashmir.

Even on the eve of the declaration of results on Monday, leaders in the NC and the PDP were heard telling the Kashmiris that the Centre would rig the DDC polls, jail the Opposition leaders and run the councils in an autocratic fashion. All this propaganda was laid bare by the first very results on Tuesday.

The BJP itself did not fare well as the party won only 68 seats out of 280 till 10.30 pm when it was still maintaining a lead on 6 seats. Four Union Ministers campaigned for the party extensively but still it didn’t get a windfall even in Jammu. The only solace came in the fact that the BJP, for the first time, opened its account in Kashmir where it scored victory on three seats. Even its friendly, Apni Party, did not get more than 11 seats.

This was nevertheless significant that even the opposition parties did not achieve much in the asymmetrical “all-versus-BJP” battle. The Congress cut a sorry figure with just 20 seats even as it maintained lead on six more.

The anti-BJP alliance of six regional parties and the CPI (M),the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), got a total of 90 seats in addition to its lead on 22 more seats. The BJP surfaced as the single largest party with 68 seats, followed by the NC which got 55 in addition to its lead on 16 more seats. The PDP had to be content with just 24 seats. It has a lead on three more seats. The Peoples Conference (PC) won 6 and maintained its lead on 3 more while the CPI (M) scored victory on 5 seats. Even after counting the trends, PAGD’s tally is not more than 112.

In other words, no political party or alliance has been able to get the simple majority of 140 seats. However, equally significant is the fact that as many as 44 independent candidates have achieved victory. Ten more of this tribe were maintaining lead over others.

The PAGD in particular suffered two major setbacks. Its performance in all the 10 districts in Jammu remained abysmal. Even in its stronghold of Srinagar, where the NC and the PDP have retained monopoly in the last many years, the PAGD got a total of 4 seats out of 14. The NC and the PDP got just one each. As many as 7 seats went to independent candidates besides one to the BJP.

Changing their goalposts, the NC and the PDP leaders have begun to call the DDC polls as “referendum on abrogation of Article 370”, albeit without lending credibility and legitimacy to the Indian elections. Will the world listen to their political rhetoric or appreciate India’s transparent democratic exercise in Kashmir remains a big question mark..