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J&K's first major election for 13,000 Panchayat seats soon

J&K's first major election for 13,000 Panchayat seats soon

The first major democratic exercise in the newly created union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is being conducted in October-November 2020 with elections for over 13,000 vacancies of Panches and Sarpanches. Even though the main Panchayat election in November-December 2018 had been held on a non-party basis, when J&K was a state, the by-election would be the UT’s first, and on a party basis.

The Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj has announced on Wednesday, 7 October, that the Chief Electoral Officer, who also is the administrative Secretary of the Department of Elections, would be soon issuing a formal notification and schedule for the by-election on 12,168 vacancies of Panches and 1,089 vacancies of Sarpanches across all the UT’s 20 districts.

In 2011, Panchayat elections in J&K were held after a gap of nearly 30 years. Notwithstanding a four-month-long street turbulence through 2010, the Panchayat elections of 2011 broke many previous records of the voter turnout, in both Kashmir and Jammu divisions. Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP-led coalition did not hold the next Panchayat elections on time in 2016. These were inordinately deferred in spite of repeated directions by the then Governor N.N. Vohra. Finally the same were held only in November-December 2018, five months after the fallout between the PDP and the BJP.

Two of the Valley’s key political parties, Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), boycotted the Panchayat as well as the Urban Local Bodies elections in 2018 in view of indications of the Centre’s plan to abrogate Articles 370 and 35-A. Consequently, many of those who contested and were returned in the non-party Panchayat elections of November-December 2018, as also in the party-based Urban Local Bodies elections of October 2018 in Kashmir, either belonged to the BJP or its temporary affiliates. Many of them contested as ‘independent’ candidates. In Jammu, the seats were shared by the BJP and the Congress party in a tough contest.

Since most of the mainstream politicians of NC and PDP, as also those of Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference (PC), Yusuf Tarigami-led CPI(M) and some other smaller outfits, were detained under Public Safety Act (PSA), these non-BJP, non-Congress parties were absent in the UT’s first elections for Block Development Councils (BDCs), held in October 2019. Only the elected Panches and Sarpanches were eligible to vote in the elections for BDCs—the middle layer of the three-tier Panchayati Raj system. A number of the contestants claimed support from different political parties which though insisted to be absent. The BDC elections too were held on party basis, when most of the mainstream politicians including three Chief Ministers—Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti—were under detention.

In the wake of serious militant threats and assassinations, coupled with the NC’s and the PDP’s boycott, there was a lukewarm response to the Panchayat and the ULB elections of 2018 in Kashmir. As many as 12,344 seats, mostly in Kashmir, remained vacant. While the turnout was dismal in a large number of seats, neither the voters nor the candidates came out to participate in many wards.

A number of the elected Panches and Sarpanches resigned out of the fear of militant threats and killings. Besides, a number of the seats fell vacant after the elected representatives were returned as BDC chairpersons. Some Panches and Sarpanches were killed by militants.

Now the vacancies have increased from 12,344 in 2018 (11,457 Panches, 887 Sarpanches) to 13,257 in 2020 (12,168 Panches, 1089 Sarpanches).

Then LG Girish Chandra Murmu’s government notified by-elections for 12,650 vacancies of Panches and Sarpanches in February 2020. According to the notification issued on 13 February, polling for phase-I of the proposed 8 phases was scheduled on 5 March. However, the notification was withdrawn and the by-elections deferred indefinitely. These could not be held due to the Coronavirus pandemic in March-September 2020.

With some improvement in the situation, the new LG Manoj Sinha is understood to have directed the authorities to accomplish the process of the first tier with by-elections on 13,257 vacancies. These will be also the UT’s first elections during the Covid-19 pandemic for which necessary Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and guidelines would be observed. Officials maintained that all the necessary arrangements had been made. The Model Code of Conduct would come into force with the CEO’s notification.

Elections to the District Planning and Development Boards (DPDBs) to complete the process of three-tier system for the first time in the history of J&K could be held as per the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution of India.

As of now, regional political parties like the NC and PDP have insisted on restoration of statehood and the special status with the indications of not participating in any elections in the near future. However, leaders of consequence in all these parties believe that boycotting the elections would mean giving all seats to the BJP and its friendly Apni Party on a platter. Days to come will make these parties’ stand clear.

The J&K Reorganisation Act 2019 has dispensed with the 40-member Legislative Council, it has provided for 83-member Legislative Assembly excluding the 24 seats reserved for the territories occupied by Pakistan. The erstwhile state’s assembly had been placed under suspension with Governor’s rule on 19 June 2018 and dissolved with the President’s rule in November 2019. Thereafter, the state was under President’s rule till 31 October 2019. It was extended to the UT which is still continuing.

Currently a 3-member committee constituted by Election Commission of India is delimiting the assembly constituencies in J&K. Elections for the UT’s first Legislative Assembly may take place after the delimitation process anytime in 2019..