J&K Election: Uncertainty Grows Amid Govt’s Mixed Signals
While BJP leaders have been talking of elections, there has been no official communication yet.
On the afternoon of 25 July, shopkeepers near Lal Chowk in Srinagar proceeded timidly to lift the shutters. A lot of them were sulking. In the morning, roads leading to the historic clock tower at Lal Chowk were sealed off, with the barricades placed around entry points and security forces and military vans deployed nearby to keep out everyone except the politicians and workers associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the press.
The BJP’s ‘Tiranga Rally’ took place amid a lot of fanfare and political sabre-rattling. The ire provoked by the closure of shops as well as a well-known missionary school, besides causing city-wide traffic snarls, was reflective of the simmering political disenchantment that’s still widespread within the local people.
Heavy Security for BJP's Rally
Social media was flooded with gripes about kids not being able to attend school. Other posts poked fun at the administration for having turned the area into an impregnable military fortress just to hold a small rally. A bookseller in the vicinity was behind the schedule in prepping up his wares. When this reporter asked him why he was being late, he shrugged in dismay. “What can we even do?”
Paramilitary forces continued to man the streets and bunkers appeared reinforced with wire mesh and sacks full of sand. The event was part of fresh efforts to crank up political activity in the erstwhile state ahead of the proposed Assembly election.
Stalwart figures of the BJP had all the political boilerplates at their disposal to hammer home the idea that the abrogation of Article 370 would not be reversed. Tejasvi Surya, an MP, clambered onto the make-shift podium and spoke about the imperatives to finish the “civilisational task”, whose key agenda was assimilating Kashmir with India.
'Things are Happening in a Dodgy Way'
Following the government’s decision to revise the electoral rolls in the Union Territory for the first time since the last elected government collapsed in 2018, a flurry of election-related signalling has been going on in Kashmir.
Earlier this month, the Election Commission ordered a special summary revision (SSR) of photo electoral rolls for Jammu and Kashmir, signalling a formal start of the electoral process in the erstwhile state.
In yet another indication that polls could be imminent, the Election Commission recently held a workshop to complete first-level checks of EVM and VVPATs. Many Deputy Commissioners who participated in the workshop are also currently doubling up as District Election Officers and are overseeing the rationalisation of polling stations given the addition of seven new seats to the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly.
But mainstream parties, who have been most eager, are perturbed by the absence of any official communication regarding assembly polls. They have accused the ruling BJP of manufacturing ambiguous discourse around elections at a time when the government faces a resurgent militancy characterised by targeted killings and is likely to be confronted by a stark choice of having to relinquish power to parties fundamentally opposed to the reading down of Article 370, should elections take place anytime soon.
“BJP has used the information that should have been freely available to the public as a weapon,” said Ifra Jan, spokesperson for the J&K National Conference.
“Ideally, everyone should have known when elections are going to happen. But everything is happening in a dodgy way. We’ve been told elections will happen, or that the statehood will be returned. All these are simply verbal declarations.”Ifra Jan, Spokesperson, J&K National Conference
The Cloud of 'Delimitation'
The ambiguity that the regional parties are complaining of has deepened due to the Union government’s contradictory rhetoric. Earlier in February, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that elections in Jammu & Kashmir will be held within six to eight months after the delimitation exercise is completed.
The ‘delimitation’, or the redrawing of electoral boundaries in Jammu & Kashmir, was necessitated after the passing of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, which split the former state into two Union Territories while spelling out a new legal architecture that is more analogous to the one operational across the rest of the country.
The Reorganisation Act overturned a lawful freeze on delimitation in Jammu & Kashmir that was to be in place “until the figures for the first Census taken after the year 2026 have been published”, mirroring a similar nationwide moratorium.
As per the plan, the Commission awarded seven new seats to the Jammu & Kashmir State Assembly, of which six went to Jammu and only one to Kashmir, igniting allegations of gerrymandering.
The resizing of seats in both the regions of the Union Territory has also led to political resentment with political parties in Kashmir alleging that the move has been designed to blunt the numerical influence of Muslims.
'Efforts Underway to Divide Us'
Following the Union Home Minister’s comment, Valley-based parties seemed upbeat. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah suggested that the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an alliance of several parties demanding restoration of special status, fight the elections jointly. This call was reaffirmed recently except for a very cryptic post on Twitter by Abdullah, which appeared to indicate his unwillingness to hitch his political wagon with other parties.
His party spokespersons, however, told this reporter that the tweet was in relation to national politics, not regional.
In May, while addressing a political rally in Surankote in Jammu, Abdullah had also specifically underscored why boycott of elections was not an option. The party had previously boycotted the 2018 Panchayat elections in protest against reports that the Union government would repeal Article 35(A) of the Constitution, which empowers the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly to define ‘State subjects’ and apportion the state resources exclusively to them.
“Staying away from elections is also not going to help us,” Abdullah had told the crowd.
“We cannot expect to have problems resolved by sitting. Even today, concerted efforts are underway to divide us. In the rest of the country, wedges are being drawn on communal lines, but in Jammu and Kashmir, divisions are being created on regional and ethnic lines. In the upcoming elections, we have to keep such forces at bay that are determined to thrive on local fault lines.”Omar Abdullah, former J&K Chief Minister
Leaders Talk of Elections, But Govt Stays Mum
Adding to the election-related chorus, the Jammu & Kashmir Lieutenant-Governor, Manoj Sinha, confirmed earlier this month that elections in the Union Territory will “surely” take place after the completion of the ongoing electoral revision and that the restoration of statehood would follow at an “appropriate time”.
Even as Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently asked Jammu & Kashmir’s BJP leaders to be in “ready mode” for the upcoming assembly election, the Central government put the ball in the Election Commission of India’s court and effectively distanced itself from the matter by saying that the decision to schedule elections is the prerogative of the national polling agency.
Such marked absence of any official correspondence on elections, the relentless talk of polls by the senior government functionaries notwithstanding – and the noticeable mismatch between the government's words and actions – has cast a large cloak of uncertainty over the whole state of affairs.
Political analysts believe that such an evasive attitude on the government's part could have largely to do with the spiralling security situation. Over the last few months, Jammu & Kashmir has seen several targeted attacks waged by militant groups, aimed largely at members of minority communities and police personnel.
An Alienated Population Is a Bad Sign
“Kashmir has been an aberration for the past seven decades. Democracy operates in a certain atmosphere. It is not about completing formalities. Democracy has to have a substance and that substance comes from popular participation with political parties being part of that process,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, a senior political scientist.
“I don’t think that is happening. If they are thinking in terms of holding elections, then it has to be done transparently and through communication that takes place at multiple levels. It looks like they are sending feelers just to test the waters, probably because the government doesn’t have confidence. If it wants to come in this manner, with a degree of diffidence, then it doesn’t reflect the spirit of democracy.”Noor Ahmad Baba, Political Scientist.
Other political players in Kashmir are also sceptical about the claims of elections. “Recently, a circular from EC seeking details of SVEEP [Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation] activities from two poll-bound states did not mention Jammu & Kashmir. That pretty much is an indication that elections in Kashmir may not happen this year,” said Adnan Ashraf Mir, spokesperson for Sajad Lone-led J&K People’s Conference. “And it is rather strange that at first, they said elections would take place within six months of the completion of the delimitation plan. But now, they are saying that the ball is in the EC’s court. It has been four years of Central rule for Jammu & Kashmir. The lack of a representative government has further estranged the people from the system. And when people stop relating with the system, it's a dangerous sign.”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir.)
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