The lowest-ever voter turnout in the first two phases of Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) elections in the strife-torn Kashmir Valley is threatening not only to discredit all the best-held democratic exercises of the Election Commission of India (EC), but also to embolden the separatists and the militants who, in recent times, had been marginalised by the Assembly elections of 2014.
In less than four months since breaking its coalition with the Valley-centric Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA government at the Centre has assigned the Governor’s administration a challenging task.
Neither of the two successive political regimes, respectively headed by Omar Abdullah and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti, was able to conduct the ULB or Panchayat elections in the last several years.
While as the term for the municipal bodies had expired in year 2010, the Panchayat bodies had ceased to exist in 2016. The last ULB and Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir had been held respectively in 2005 and 2011.
Both had witnessed huge voter turnout.
Why Were Panchayat Elections Scheduled Right After Bypolls?
The Panchayat elections have been scheduled immediately after the conclusion of the current elections for 79 ULBs – 40 in the Valley.
“None of us, not even Governor (Narendra Nath) Vohra or Governor (Satya Paul) Malik was in favour of holding the municipal and Panchayat elections at a time when the political dispensation had completely failed to deliver,” one of the advisors to the Governor revealed to The Quint.
“We knew that the gulf between the people and the ministers and legislators had widened, and not one of them was either visiting the constituency or staying at home. But there were sustained instructions from the Centre to go ahead with the polls,” the advisor explained.
The advisor believed that nobody at the Centre had an inkling of the plans of boycott to the elections by both the mainstream political majors in the Valley — Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) as well as the former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP.
It made the separatists’ traditional call for boycott more successful but, in hindsight, also diluted their ownership. Had it been exclusively theirs, they would have felt it easy to project the election fiasco as a “referendum against India”.
The NC and PDP have stood away over the issue of the BJP government’s “assault” on Article 35-A of the Constitution of India, which guarantees special status to Jammu and Kashmir state within the Indian sovereignty.
Why the Abysmal Turn-Out Is Worrisome
In sharp contrast to the enthusiasm, first in the ULB elections in 2005 and later in the Panchayat elections in 2011, current elections are breaking records of all the poor-response democratic exercises in Kashmir. In contrast, the electorate in Jammu and Ladakh has been warm.
While Jammu has recorded turnout of 70 percent and 78.6 percent in phase-1 and phase-2 of the polling respectively, it has been a paltry 8.2 percent and 3.4 percent respectively in Kashmir.
Only the three ULBs of Kupwara (36.56 percent), Handwara (27.97 percent) and Sumbal (35.6 percent) have crossed the 20 percent mark. Not a single candidate has filed nomination papers in Frisal, Kulgam.
In all, there would be practically no polling in 46 percent of the wards in Kashmir as many of them have gone blank, and single candidates, mostly of BJP and Congress, have filed papers in over a hundred wards.
The lowest ever turnout of 2.3 percent in 19 wards of Srinagar Municipal Corporation, in the phase-2 of polling on 10 October, has brought down the state turnout to 31.3 percent.
Mood of the indifferent electorate in the capital city could be gauged from the fact that just 17 votes were polled among 18,155 for 8 hours of the day in the two wards around the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Tankipora.
Boycott calls from separatists and the mainstream parties, though for varied reasons, coupled with fear of the gun and threats from militants, fear of social boycott and little control of Police, security forces and civil administration on the situation have failed the purpose of holding the municipal and Panchayat elections.
“The BJP leaders anticipating 90 percent turnout and claiming that all from Hurriyat to NC and PDP had become irrelevant, have been proved wrong,” said a senior political analyst.
It is arguably for the first time that the authorities have not made names and addresses of the contestants public and media’s entry has been barred to polling stations. For the first time, there has been no canvassing or a public rally.
With many of the candidates hiding in security zones, there have been no posters, hoards, banners or buntings either.
While as some mainstream leaders have raised questions over the Governor predicting a young foreign educated candidate as would-be mayor of Srinagar, which was later denied by Raj Bhavan, Omar Abdullah has asked why the timing of beginning of the polling had been advanced from 8 am to 6 am.
On Twitter, separatist leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq has dismissed it as “Fake, Fudged and Farcical Elections”.
How Jammu and Kashmir Performed Previously
Interestingly, over 60 percent to 90 percent voters had exercised their right in the municipal elections of 2005 and Panchayat elections of 2011, beating even Jammu and Ladakh in many wards.
Even as the turnout in the bye-election on Srinagar Lok Sabha seat in April 2017 was not more than 7.14 percent, people in Kashmir have had a huge participation in most of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, particularly after Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government gave them the first free and fair elections in 1977.
In most of the elections from 1957 to 1977, nominations of opposition candidates had been rejected on flimsy grounds and many of them had been allegedly intimidated or bribed to ensure victory of the ruling party candidates.
Srinagar Lok Sabha seat recorded a huge turnout of 58.88% in 1971, 69.12 percent in 1977 and the highest ever 73.51 percent in 1984.
NC’s Farooq Abdullah and Mohammad Shafi Bhat won uncontested in 1980 and 1989 respectively. Even in 1996, when the NC did not contest, turnout in Srinagar was 40.94 percent. In 1998, it was 30.06 percent.
In 1999, Srinagar recorded the history’s lowest turnout of 11.93 percent but it went up to 18.57 percent in 2004, 25.55 percent in 2009 and 26 percent in 2014.
Rest of the two seats of Baramulla in northers Kashmir and Anantnag in southern Kashmir went also on the same lines. However, both the constituencies recorded the lowest ever turnout of 5.48 percent and 5.07 percent respectively in the Lok Sabha elections of 1989.
Even in the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the most hypersensitive districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama polled 37.76 percent, 36.68 percent, 20.43 percent and 6.32 percent respectively.
The Quint went through behaviour of the voters in 13 hypersensitive segments across all Assembly elections from 1977 to 2014 and noticed huge responses with exception of the Assembly election of 2002.
Astonishingly, the turnout has been as huge as 85.39 percent in Zainakadal (Khanyar), 82.59 percent in Hazratbal, 81.71 percent in Zadibal, 80.77 percent in Iddgah, 78.58 percent in Nageen (Sonwar), 74.54 percent in Amirakadal and 70.62 percent in Habbakadal —all in Srinagar.
Similarly, it has been 85.90 percent in Sopore, 84.72 percent in Tral, 74.92 percent in Kulgam, 73.27 percent in Pulwama and 73.06 percent in Shopian.
Srinagar recorded the lowest percentage of all Assembly elections in 2002 in:
- Hazratbal: 7.12 %
- Amirakadal: 3.06 %
- Habbakadal: 3.21 %
- Khanyar: 4.22 %
- Iddgah: 4.75 %
- Zadibal: 4.78 %
- Sonwar: 36.66 %
- Batmaloo: 19.97 %
It was equally low in Sopore (8.09), Pulwama (18.13) and Tral (11.55). It was still a modest 26.91 percent in Shopian and 24.40 percent in Kulgam.
Finally in 2014, all the hypersensitive segments reached a modest 44.03 percent in Sonwar, 29.54 percent in Hazratbal, 27.80 percent in Iddgah, 26.16 percent in Khanyar, 24.84 percent in Amirakadal, 24.49 percent in Batmaloo, 23.93 percent in Zadibal, 21.31 percent in Habbakadal besides 56.38 percent in Kulgam, 50.65 percent in Shopian, 38.22 percent in Tral, 38.12 percent in Pulwama and 30.80 percent in Sopore.