The recently concluded District Development Council polls were the first major elections in Jammu and Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370 as well as the crackdown, lockdown, incarceration of leaders and violence that followed.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has claimed victory in the DDC elections, citing that it is the single largest party in terms of seats and votes as well. While statistically, the BJP is right but politically, it's not so simple.
There are three aspects to the elections: The BJP's performance, the success of the seven-party People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration and what the results may mean for Jammu and Kashmir
First, the numbers.
The PAGD, which comprises seven parties like Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party, Jammu and Kashmir People's Conference, and CPI(M) won 109 out of 280 seats, while the BJP won 74.
The PAGD is all set to take control of nine out of the 10 district councils in the Kashmir region while the BJP is likely to get control of six out of 10 councils in the Jammu region. Four district councils in Jammu and one in Kashmir will be dependent on Independents and smaller parties.
Not Quite a Win for BJP
The BJP's claim of victory is based on its status as the single-largest party and the fact that it polled 4.8 lakh votes compared to 3.9 lakh of the PAGD.
However, both claims need to be put in context. The BJP became the single-largest party mainly because it contested almost all the 280 seats while the second-largest party, the JKNC which won 67 seats contested 168.
The BJP getting a larger number of votes is mainly due to the fact that the turnout in Jammu region, where it is strong, was above 70 percent, while in Kashmir it was half of that. So, it is natural that Jammu-based parties poll more votes overall than Kashmir-based ones. This happened even in the 2014 Assembly polls in which the BJP polled the maximum number of votes yet was behind the PDP in terms of seats.
However, the worrying part for the BJP is that while it may have made minor inroads into Kashmir, its dominance in Jammu seems to have weakened a bit.
In 2014, it won 25 out of 37 seats in Jammu, that is over two thirds. But in the DDC polls, it won 71 out of 140 seats which is just above 50 percent.
In particular, the BJP seems to have lost some ground in districts like Doda, Ramban and Rajauri. In the Assembly polls, the BJP had won both the seats in Doda but in the DDC polls, it won 8 out of 14 seats. In Ramban it had won 1 out of 2 in 2014 but in the DDC polls it had to settle for 3 out of 14. Then in Rajauri, the BJP had won 2 out of 5 seats in the Assembly polls but now has been reduced to 2 out of 13.
However, the BJP swept Hindu majority districts like Jammu, Udhampur, Samba and Kathua, winning 48 out of 56 seats in these four districts.
The BJP can draw solace from the fact that the its main competitor in these areas, the Congress, was wiped out in these four districts and the only resistance came from the NC and Panthers Party, who won two seats each.
The BJP won three seats in the Kashmir region: Tulail in Bandipora district, Khonmoh II in Srinagar and Kakapora II in Pulwama.
But the party couldn't make any more inroads despite controlling power both at the Centre and in Jammu and Kashmir.
The election exposed what has been a weakness for the BJP nationally – that its electoral success goes haywire in areas where Hindus are not an overwhelming majority.
Win for PAGD But With Riders
The BJP may not have anticipated that the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference and Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party would form an alliance but the leaders of the two parties – Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah of the NC and Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP – were mature enough to set aside their rivalry and take on the BJP.
The PAGD won 109 seats and are likely to take control of all the district councils in Kashmir except the capital Srinagar.
However, there are important nuances within the PAGD.
To a great extent, the PAGD's win has been possible due to the resilience of the JKNC at the grassroots level. It won 67 seats and is in a position to control the Badgam and Ganderbal councils on its own. More important is the fact that the NC even emerged as the main opposition party in Jammu as well, winning 25 seats in the region. It did particularly well in Kishtwar and Ramban, winning 6 seats each and 5 in Rajauri. It had been wiped out in these three districts in the 2014 Assembly elections.
The BJP's poor performance in these districts is partly due to a surprisingly strong showing by the NC.
In fact, it is the NC and not the BJP that has emerged as the party with a sizeable presence in both regions.
The PDP may have won less seats than the NC but that's also due to the fact that it contested less seats. The NC contested 168 seats and won 67 while the PDP won 27 out of 68, both having a strike rate of close to 40 percent. However, the NC's performance is more creditable as it contested a much larger chunk of seats in Jammu than PDP.
The PDP contesting less seats even in Kashmir, may be the result of the weakening of its cadre strength. It never had the kind of cadre base the NC enjoyed, mainly due to the land reforms the latter carried out decades ago.
The PDP was to an extent dependent on the tacit support of Jamaat-e-Islami cadres. This was lost both due to its alliance with the BJP and the crackdown against Jamaat by the BJP government.
During the DDC elections, the PDP was at the receiving end of the authorities' hostility more than its own partners. For instance, its leader Waheed Parra, also a DDC candidate from Pulwama, has been arrested under the UAPA. Parra won the election by a little less than 1000 votes.
Then a day before the results, senior PDP leaders Naeem Akhtar and Mansoor Hussain were detained by the police.
It is likely that in the near future, the PDP would continue to face this hostility. This would put Mehbooba Mufti in a tricky position. She would ideally want to adopt a more aggressive position as she used to earlier but that would in all likelihood invite the Centre's wrath. So the choice is between playing it safe and risking further political decline or taking a stronger position only to face a crackdown.
New Players in Srinagar
While the PAGD may have foiled the BJP's plans in much of the Valley, the political dynamics of the capital Srinagar may have helped the Centre create new political actors.
Like previous elections, Srinagar recorded the poorest turnout among all the districts. As a result candidates managed to win by securing just a few hundred votes.
In 10 out of 14 seats in Srinagar, the winning candidate got less than 500 votes. This created an opportunity for smaller players to win against established parties like NC and PDP.
Seven Independent candidates have won in Srinagar and three seats have been bagged by Apni Party, formed by former PDP MLA from Amira Kadal Altaf Bukhari. Considered close to the Centre, it is popularly called 'King's Party'. The PAGD has already alleged that the BJP is trying to take control of the Srinagar district council by cobbling together a coalition of Apni Party and Independents.
What This Means for Jammu and Kashmir
Despite the average electoral performance, there are some important wins for the Centre. An incident-free election will enable it to claim that "normalcy" has returned to Jammu and Kashmir and that the people have "accepted" the revocation of Article 370. Whether the people feel that way is another matter entirely.
The second win for the Centre is that the participation of the Gupkar parties will lend some legitimacy to the election, at least compared to the civic elections.
The third win is, of course, the BJP's continued domination among Jammu Hindus and gaining a toe-hold in Kashmir.
But the tricky part for the BJP is that it is still not in a position to come to power through free and fair elections under the current electoral boundaries.
If the DDC results are extrapolated to the Assembly level, the BJP's sweep of the Hindu-dominated areas in Jammu may translate into 20-25 Assembly seats and then it may have received the support of smaller players for Srinagar. Even this would have left it short by at least 10 seats. So it is clear that for the BJP to capture power through elections in Jammu and Kashmir, it would need to redraw constituency boundaries to the advantage of Jammu or it would have to break up the PAGD.
This means that it is highly unlikely that BJP would hold Assembly elections anytime soon. Ideally it would want for the delimitation process to get over or for PAGD to implode.
The PAGD's success would ironically mean that the Centre will now be even more hesitant in opening up political space in Jammu and Kashmir.