J&K DDC Election: What Lies Beyond its Victories and Losses
Elections in Kashmir have always been more than just a democratic process to elect representatives. Delhi has always sought to control the politics of Kashmir and so the “national interest” has dominated over its democratic aspirations. The Great Divide between Jammu and the Valley provides a strong base for communal polarisation, and the political edge of the Valley only fuels this. There has always been an international angle to polls in the region as well, and so, participation in elections in the Valley has been used as a barometer for its people’s affiliation to India.
However, these factors have been associated with Assembly elections and the local polls were never a “national” issue as they seem to have become since 5 August 2019. After the unceremonious fall of the Mehbooba Mufti government, the subsequent abrogation of Art. 370 of the Constitution, and the bifurcation of state into two Union Territories, there has been complete silence over the next Assembly election, but the administration conducted the recent District Development Council (local body) polls with unusual enthusiasm.
Not only did the BJP send its senior leaders to campaign in these polls, it also showcased the process as a “mandate on Art. 370” and “restoration of democratic process” in Jammu and Kashmir. Pro-government channels orchestrated hot debates and even day-to-day developments were covered. Now that the results are out, once again, the studios are beaming with declarations of victory.
While the BJP has declared the result as a validation of its decision to abrogate Art. 370, the JKPAGD or Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration is also claiming that they have a mandate in favour of the restoration of Art. 370 and statehood.
Making the Global of the ‘Local’
The central government was keen to start a certain kind of democratic process in the Valley after it imposed Governor’s Rule in June 2018. Panchayat and municipal elections were declared soon after. The National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) decided to boycott those elections which resulted in one of the lowest turnouts ever in the Valley for local body elections. However, this proved to be a god-sent opportunity for the BJP and it registered its presence at the grassroots level in the Valley. Forming an alliance with the People’s Conference of Sajad Lone, it went on to win seats even in South Kashmir, mostly uncontested. There were no candidates for 185 out of 624 wards of ten districts of the Valley, while in 231 of the remaining 439 wards, there were single candidates and thus voting took place only in about one-third of the total seats. Not a single voter turned up for two of these seats, and for the rest, the voting percentage varied from 3.4 to 8.3% in the four rounds. This was a clear indication of people’s apathy for national parties. Neither the Congress nor the BJP could convince voters to take part in those local body elections. One may recall that there had always been tremendous turnouts in local elections in the Valley despite threats by militants. Even in 2005, when militancy was rampant and a boycott was called for, the turnout for panchayat elections in the Valley was more than 85%. In fact, unlike Assembly and parliamentary elections, local elections in Kashmir were fought on local development concerns, and these elections had also been conducted rather more fairly. Neither did Delhi take much interest in them, nor did it interfere, and people from all political beliefs participated.
The 2018 dismissal of the Mufti government and simultaneous apprehensions about the fate of the special status changed the scenario. The absence of both major political parties of the state further aggravated apprehensions, and this in turn alienated the public from the electoral process. The failure of local body elections in 2018 translated into a silver lining for the BJP, as it registered a solid presence for the first time in various panchayats and municipal corporations in the Valley. This then led to certain wins in the Block Development Council elections held earlier this year. Additionally, with most leaders of the National Conference, PDP and other parties arrested after 5 August 2019 (and with Sajad Lone now behind it too), the BJP started thinking big about its expansion in Valley. It had already consolidated in its old stronghold Jammu, playing with the great communal and regional divide since the 1940s.
The emergence of Apni Party under the leadership of ex-minister and former PDP leader Syed Altaf Bukhari was also an interesting development in the Valley’s politics. Bukhari was seen as a trojan horse sent by Delhi by many in Kashmir, who would call it the “King’s Own Party”.
DDC Poll Outcome and J&K Politics in Future
After they had boycotted the previous local body election and undergone a long imprisonment, leaders of mainstream political parties surprised all by forming an alliance and deciding to participate in the DDC elections. The DDC, never so important in Valley politics, came to occupy centre-stage in the absence of an elected Assembly. A boycott of this poll would have given a clear go-ahead to the BJP and the Apni Party in the Valley. Perhaps the top brass of the BJP had expected such an all-clear and so was over-enthusiastic about this election.
At the same time the Gupkar Alliance had few choices at its disposal. They cannot support the decisions of 5 August 2019, for Articles 370 and 35A had long been their political lifelines. Once the BJP was hell-bent not only to snatch away these issues but also expand its political base in the Valley, the only option left with the members of the alliance was to prove their political dominance in the Valley. This compelled an alliance between those who had been sworn enemies in the past. Even the Congress party joined the alliance at first, but then left due to its everlasting dilemma in Kashmir between local and national politics.
The results demand a multipronged analysis. First, the administration deserves congratulations for holding a fair and peaceful election. There was almost no violence. However, there were many allegations that it was complicit with, or supported, the BJP. The PDP’s youth wing leader, Waheed Ur Rehman Para, was arrested right after filing his nomination. Mehbooba Mufti alleged more than one detetion, and said this denied her party opportunity to campaign. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah also claimed that the administration placed hurdles before the campaign trail of his candidates. However, Para won his seat in Pulwama, comfortably defeating his nearest rival from the BJP.
Second, unlike the last local body election, the turnout was satisfactory in the DDC polls. This must be attributed to the participation of mainstream political parties of the Valley. Portraying it as an acceptance of the 5 August decisions is fundamentally misleading. The alliance, which was demanding restoration of Art. 370, Art. 35-A and statehood, did not only win the maximum number of seats in the Valley but also secured the maximum votes in Jammu and Kashmir—it won 35 seats in the Jammu region as well. The National Conference is the only party which registered a significant presence in both regions. The JKPAGD won 110 seats, while the much-hyped Apni Party was totally rejected by the people and could win only six seats in the Valley. The BJP won 73 seats in Jammu region but could manage only three in the Valley. One noteworthy fact is the victory of the CPM on five seats, mostly in South Kashmir.
BJP in Jammu and JKPAGD in Valley: A False Narrative
The results have been generally analysed by the mainstream media as a dichotomy between the Jammu and Kashmir regions. There is an inherent communal angle to this, which is quite suitable to the “nationalist” narrations of our times. But this inference demands an objective analysis.
Let us start with an interesting result. Nowshera is a constituency along the hostile border between India and Pakistan and falls under Jammu region and is part of Rajouri district. This is also the hometown of the state president of the BJP, Ravinder Raina, who won the Assembly election from this constituency in 2014. PDP’s Manohar Singh won this seat in the DDC election, with a huge margin of 2,904 votes over rival candidate from BJP, Mohinder Singh. Similarly, an ex-minister of the BJP, Shyam Lal Chowdhary, lost from Suchetgadh in Jammu. It is noteworthy that he had won Assembly elections twice from the same seat.
In the Muslim-dominated Valley, three Sikh candidates have registered victories from the far-flung south. While Parmeet Kaur from Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference won Rafiabad, the ancestral belt of Altaf Bukhari, Dr. Harbakash Singh won Tral for PDP, defeating his nearest rival from the Congress. An independent candidate Avtar Singh defeated Ali Mohammad Bhatt of the National Conference in the Muslim-dominated Dadsara constituency of Tral district. Altaf Thakur, the spokesperson of BJP came a distant third.
The Jammu region comprise ten districts—Jammu, Doda, Kathua, Ramban, Reasi, Kishtwar, Poonch, Rajouri, Udhampur and Samba. While the BJP did well in Jammu, Kathua, Udhampur and Sambha, winning 48 of 56 seats, its performance in Doda, Ramban and Rajouri has been lacklustre, where it could win only 13 of 41 seats.
As far as the overall results are concerned, they could not match their earlier performance. While the BJP won 25 out of 37 seats from Jammu in the 2014 Assembly election, which amounts to two-thirds of the seats, they could manage only 71 of 140 seats this time, or about half the total seats.
The claims of “maximum votes” and “single-largest party” also need to be analysed. While the BJP contested on almost all 280 seats, the National Conference, as an alliance partner, contested on only 168 seats. Additionally, there was a vast difference in voting percentages in the Valley and Jammu. While Jammu polled more than 70% votes, only about 45% voters exercised their democratic right in the Valley. As a result, obviously, the BJP secured more votes in these elections while its seat share is lesser than the alliance.
At the same time, calling the outcome a clear-cut win for JKPAGD would also be far from the reality. The National Conference, the largest partner in this alliance, performed well; it has won 25 seats in Jammu region. Yet its performance in its traditional stronghold districts like Poonch was far from satisfactory. Here it could win only two seats and on the other eight seats, people preferred to elect an independent candidate.
Even in the Valley, many independent candidates have been picked over traditional parties. In such an important election, where issues such as revocation of Art. 370 were at work, this may be an indicator of people’s disenchantment with traditional parties in the state. The low turnout in Srinagar (where 10 out of 14 seats were won by candidates getting less than 500 votes) and South Kashmir, were also important factors, which gave independent candidates an edge over others.
The PDP, which contested on only 68 seats, won 26 seats from the Valley and one seat from Rajouri. These elections have been difficult for the party and it had to face the most hostile attitude of the administration. Mehbooba had dual responsibilities—to rebuild her party and develop a plank to survive in politics. Her declaration that she would not contest in any election until Art. 370 is restored should be read in this context.
Naïve to Ignore Communal Polarisation
The BJP registered massive wins in the predominantly Hindu regions, while it did not fare well in areas with a mixed population. The JKPAGD dominated in areas where Muslims live in higher proportions. This reminds of the 1983 Assembly election, when Indira Gandhi used the Resettlement Bill to communalise the election to such an extent that her party, the Congress, won almost all the seats in the Jammu region and lost almost all the seats in the Valley to the National Conference, while the BJP was wiped out from its strongholds.
Now, the landslide victory of the BJP in regions like Jammu (11/14), Kathua (13/14), Samba (13/14) and Udhampur (11/14) wiped out not only the Congress, which could win no seats in these districts and only 17 in Jammu, but also the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party, which could manage only two seats in Udhampur. These districts have long been a stronghold of Hindutva forces, while the socio-cultural environment in other districts of Jammu region had been more cohesive, with the strong presence of the moderate National Conference. Another interesting fact is the maiden victory of the BSP in the Kathua district. While Jammu has a sizeable population of Dalits, Dalit politics has been absent till now. If the BSP can make inroads, it will significantly affect the politics of Jammu and Kashmir.
While the National Conference has much to take away from this election, the Congress must emerge from its dilemma if it wants a worthwhile presence in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir. It did extend support to the JKPAGD immediately after the results, but its exit from the alliance was abrupt and cost it dearly.
The Road Ahead
Despite its emergence as single largest party in the erstwhile state, the results in no way confirm a majority for the BJP in a future Assembly election. It can manage to win over some independents to establish control over a few more councils, like Srinagar, but that may not be enough to secure a majority in an Assembly election. The failed Apni Party experiment and significant emergence of independents in Jammu and the Valley will have to be carefully watched. The BJP is seeking a reliable partner in the Valley and may experiment with a few other individuals and outfits.
These “favourable” results are not going to lead to an early Assembly election in the former state and people will have to wait for the completion of the delimitation process which may give an edge to the Jammu region in terms of Assembly seats. Democracy has to wait as some “adjustments” take place in Jammu and Kashmir and the results from districts with mixed populations in Jammu, combined with the arrival of the BSP, may yet spoil its party.
As for a mandate in favour of abrogation or restoration of Art. 370 and statehood, one has to accept that Jammu and Kashmir are still a divided house, where for long opinions have been constructed by multiple factors. Jammu has its own apprehensions about the dominance of the Valley and the Valley’s collective memories of Dogra rule will never let them be at ease with Jammu’s dominance. The gap between these two extremes has been filled with communal extremism and there is no hope of reconciliation in the near future.
The writer is the author of Kashmirnama and Kashmir and Kashmiri Pandits. The views are personal.
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