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J&K’s first DDC elections to redefine democracy, development in the valley

Jammu and Kashmir’s first universal adult franchise, after the erstwhile state was divided into the two union territories (UT) of J&K and Ladakh in August 2019, is likely to be held in the next two months as the government decided to constitute the first District Development Councils (DDCs). The DDCs will be the new unit of governance in the valley, with an electorate of over six million people.
All eligible voters, excluding those already represented in Urban Local Bodies, would be entitled to exercise their right to franchise.

The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, introduced in Parliament on August 5 last year, was passed with a thumping majority. The bill repealed J&K’s statehood and the special status granted under Article 370 of the Constitution of India.

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With its appointed date of October 31 2019, J&amp;K became a UT with a Legislative Assembly and Ladakh was separated as another UT without legislature.

The detention of mainstream politicians, including three former chief ministers—Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti—under the Public Safety Act (PSA), coupled with two months of curfew and restrictions from the government and another three-month long separatist-sponsored shutdown disrupted the environment of peace and tranquility.

Six regional parties with the support of Congress and CPI (M) at the national level have lately formed ‘Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration’ (PAGD) and launched a joint struggle for restoration of the Statehood and Articles 370 and 35-A. Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which boycotted the Panchayat elections and the Urban Local Body (ULB) elections of 2018, besides Sajjad Lone’s Peoples Conference (PC), which participated in the two elections, are now at the forefront of the PAGD. All these parties however participated in the Lok Sabha election of April-May 2019—nearly a year after the fall of Mufti’s PDP-BJP government and six months after the dissolution of the State Assembly.

The NC and PDP stood away from the 2018 Panchayat and ULB elections in protest of the Center’s perceived plan of the abrogation of Article 370. J&amp;K’s conversion into a UT and abrogation of the Articles 370 and 35-A brought the regional mainstream rivals together as many of them were jailed and detained for several months.
The Gupkar alliance includes the PC chairman Lone, who was the BJP’s only pre-poll ally in 2014 and subsequently a minister in Mufti’s cabinet from the BJP quota.

With BJP’s support, PC contested the 2018 ULB elections when it got its spokesperson Junaid Mattu elected as Mayor in Srinagar Municipal Corporation. Lone being a signatory to the Gupkar Declaration, seeking protection of J&amp;K’s special status and statehood, was among the politicians detained under PSA. Now he is a vociferous votary of the restoration of statehood and Article 370. As of now, it is unclear whether the alliance would participate in the proposed DDC elections or call for a boycott to press its demands.

The first democratic exercise after August 2019 was the Block Development Council (BDC) elections in October 2019 when most of the mainstream leaders were under detention. Only the ‘Panches’ and the ‘Sarpanches,’ elected in 2018, were entitled to vote. There was little enthusiasm in the Panchayat and the ULB elections of 2018 when around 13,000 of the total of 21,000 seats remained vacant in the basic layer of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in the valley.

As against 83 per cent in Jammu, the voter turnout was only 41 per cent in Kashmir where polling was physically held on just 30 per cent seats.

The Lok Sabha by-elections in 2017 on the Srinagar-Budgam seat recorded the low turnout of 7 per cent. The Election Commission of India failed to hold the by-election for Anantnag-Pulwama seat due to violence on the day of polling in central Kashmir. The Lok Sabha general elections in 2019 witnessed an impressive voter turnout of 71 per cent in Jammu and Ladakh. Contrarily, it was dismal in Kashmir—34 per cent in Baramulla-Kupwara, 14 per cent in Srinagar-Budgam and 9 per cent in Anantnag-Pulwama.

BJP bagged all three seats in Jammu and Ladakh and the NC swept through all three in Kashmir.
In this whole backdrop, particularly the transformation in August 2019, the first elections for the DDCs are going to be significant for a host of reasons. These would be the first litmus test to the acceptability of the Centre’s 2019 interventions in the valley as the entire 6-million-strong rural electorate would be entitled to vote.

The turnout will indeed depend on a variety of factors— the overall security scenario, participation or boycott of the political parties, capacity of the militants and the separatists to enforce their call for boycott. Union Ministry of Home Affairs, last week notified an amendment to the J&amp;K Panchayat Act of 1989, providing for constitution of the top layer of the PRIs through universal adult suffrage of the rural population.

After this amendment, the DDCs would replace the traditional planning system at the district level, currently controlled by the Deputy Commissioners (DCs). Jammu and Kashmir has accordingly notified necessary amendments in the rules related to holding of the elections for Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). The Government had initially planned to give the right to vote to only the elected chairpersons of Block Development Councils (BDCs). Now the common rural voters would have to elect the chairpersons and the vice chairpersons of DDCs in all the 20 districts. According to official sources, a parallel exercise would run to fill up the 13,000 vacancies of the ‘Panches’ and the ‘Sarpanches’ which are also elected by the common rural voters.

The DDC constituents will come from three different streams—the BDC chairpersons, the MLAs of the district and 14 elected representatives. The constituencies — 14 in each district, have been notified and the process of reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and women is underway.

Once accomplished, the new set up would affect radical changes in the planning and development system at the district level. It was previously monopolised by the ministers, MLAs and DC. In the new dispensation, they would have limited say.

This will be a historic transition from the decades-old system where politics was supreme and development a luxury. Previously it was democracy for politics. Now it will be democracy for development and governance. The DDCs would have different committees, to be headed by a Lok Sabha member of the district.

The proposed DDC elections, likely to be conducted any time after completion of the current delimitation process, would have a bearing on the dynamics and the prospects of the new Assembly elections. In the future, a boycott of elections would mean virtual death of a political party..