The first ever democratic process of electing chairpersons for the Block Development Councils (BDCs) — the middle-layer of the Panchayati Raj Institutions — in Jammu and Kashmir, concluded on Thursday, 24 October, in an atmosphere of near-total political vacuum.
Over a hundred leaders and activists of different political parties, including three former chief ministers — Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — have been detained since the scrapping of Article 370 on 5 August. With marginal participation of Congress (2 candidates), BSP (1 candidate) and the Jammu-based National Panthers Party (18 candidates), the BJP alone has truly participated in the BDC elections.
The Valley’s ‘Proxy War’
Out of the 1,092 candidates in 307 blocks, the BJP had only 218 in the fray. The remaining 853 were independent contestants. Even as the mainstream majors like NC, PDP, Congress — and even the BJP’s 2014-18 electoral ally, Peoples Conference (PC) — stayed away, their local stakeholders were known to be supporting different independent candidates.
In certain blocks, the BJP itself appeared to be helping select independent candidates, commonly known as ‘proxies’. This makes it easy to claim victories and hard to establish the number of blocks a party now controls in the all-important rural development domain, in the soon-to-be-called Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.
As 27 of the candidates had been already declared ‘elected unopposed’, Thursday’s results were not-so-encouraging for the BJP.
About 81 of its nominees won. While the Congress got its one-odd seat in Kashmir’s Pulwama, NPP won all 8 of its blocks in Jammu’s Udhampur district. As many as 217 winners have no party affiliation.
Around 80 to 100 of the 217 independent winners are believed to be affiliated to two of the Valley’s leading mainstream parties, NC and PDP. Some 40 are perceived to be inclined towards BJP, and 30-odd are known to be the supporters of the PC leaders Sajjad Lone and Imran Ansari. In the Valley’s ‘all-versus-BJP’ scenario, their individual stand vis-à-vis the abrogation of Article 370 is baffling.
Three such ‘proxies’, including the chairman-elect for BDC Budgam, Ghulam Hassan Khan alias Babar, maintained that they wouldn’t indulge in any party politics. “We have sought vote and have been elected on our promises and commitments on development. We won’t budge an inch from that. We want the huge corruption and official-politician nexus in rural development to end. We will struggle for transparency so that the fruits of flagship schemes like MNREGA reach the deserving, deprived and poor people,” Khan asserted.
Kashmir’s Political Paralysis
In August, Kashmir was under curfew for two to three weeks. Even after lifting of the restrictions and restoration of the landline and post-paid mobile phone services, small groups of youths are forcing shopkeepers and public transporters with threats and stone pelting to observe shutdown. On the other hand, suspected militants have shot dead five persons — one local shopkeeper, three non-Kashmiri truck drivers, and a fruit merchant from Punjab — apparently to enforce the shutdown.
Due to these threats, shops and skeletal public transport services operate just for four hours a day, two each in the forenoon and in the evening.
Internet services remain suspended, and all educational institutions in the Valley have been closed over the last 80 days.
Among the 10 districts, Kupwara alone is now fully back to business. Even as there was little sense of participation and no enthusiasm in the rest of the Valley, Kupwara witnessed full-fledged campaigning in the BDC elections. Among all 22 districts in Jammu and Kashmir, it had the maximum number of contestants —102.
Mainly due to the boycott of NC and PDP to the Panchayat elections in 2018, as many as 12,565 wards were unrepresented in the Valley, and just 7,030 elected panchs and sarpanchs were eligible to vote in the BDC elections.
Was There a ‘Huge’ Turnout?
In the four rural blocks in Srinagar, there were no contestants in a block reserved for women. In another block, a lone independent candidate was elected unopposed. In the insipid contest in two blocks, one independent candidate, with hidden affiliation to PC, was elected in Khonmoh area, and another independent, reportedly affiliated to NC, was returned from Harwan area.
At a news conference, Chief Electoral Officer Shailender Kumar claimed rather proudly, that the turnout in Srinagar district was “100 percent”.
According to the Srinagar Deputy Commissioner Shahid Iqbal, just 30 elected panchs and 14 sarpanchs were eligible to vote, and they all turned up to exercise their right of franchise. The much-hyped turnout of 98.3 percent in J&K needs to be analysed in this perspective.
CEO Shailender Kumar asserted that in most of the districts, the turnout was 95 to 100 percent. The militant-infested Shopian and Pulwama districts recorded the lowest turnout of 85.3 percent and 86.2 percent respectively.
‘Govt Didn’t Interfere With this Election’
With the advantage of there being a political vacuum, some over-enthusiastic BJP leaders created an impression that the BDC elections were part of their party’s strategy to dominate the Legislative Assembly in the UT of J&K in the future, and install the first ‘Hindu’ chief minister. For many, this impression reduced the polls to a sham. But after the declaration of the results on Thursday, there were no allegations of rigging or misuse of police or administrative machinery against the BJP.
“I was BJP’s district president in Budgam for about five years. Last year, I contested and won the panchayat elections. Earlier this year, I resigned and contested as an independent candidate for Budgam block. Yesterday, I defeated the BJP candidate and with my victory, the BJP stands completely demolished in Budgam,” Ghulam Hassan Khan alias Babar Khan, a former militant, told The Quint.
“But, let me admit that the government didn’t interfere with this election, and the BJP let it go as free and fair. Just an intimidation or bribe of Rs 1 lakh to two of my voters would have ensured the victory of the BJP candidate. They didn’t do it,” Khan added.
Alternative to Ministers, MLAs
CEO Kumar calls the BDC elections ‘historic’ due to the fact that these would create an alternative socio-political structure. He explained as to how the entire district development funds would be controlled by the Panchayati Raj Institutions and how the Deputy Commissioners and the Cabinet Ministers and MLAs in a district would have to play second fiddle to Chairpersons of BDCs and District Development Councils.
“It was probably because of this that the traditional powerful politicians, including ministers, MPs and MLAs, delayed the panchayat elections and did not want the BDC polls to happen,” Kumar told The Quint.
According to him, none of the political parties in the future could afford to stay away from the panchayat and the BDC elections.
“Sarpanchs and chairpersons of BDCs in a block would be more important and powerful than MLAs and ministers,” he asserted.
‘A Sham That We’ll Undo’
A senior NC leader and former cabinet minister contested the impression that his party had participated in the BDC polls by ‘proxy’. “We neither issued a ticket nor campaigned for any candidates. We boycotted last year’s panchayat elections, but this time around we didn’t. We couldn’t take a decision of participating or staying away for the fact that all of our top leaders, including Farooq Sahab and Omar Sahab, were in detention, and we were given no time to select and field our candidates,” he said.
The NC leader said on the condition of anonymity: “As and when our party would contest assembly elections and form the government, we will, first of all, dissolve all these panchayati and municipal bodies and hold fresh free and fair elections”. He said that NC, PDP and other parties treat last year’s panchayat elections as well as this year’s urban local body and BDC elections as ‘completely farcical’.
“Level-playing field was not provided. There was just 3 to 5 percent voter turnout in most of the wards. Around 13,000 wards were unrepresented in Kashmir. Municipal committees were fraudulently and deceitfully grabbed by the BJP and its proxies. Entire political leadership was placed in jails or under house arrest ahead of the BDC polls. Because of these manipulations, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have lost their faith in the Indian democratic exercises and institutions,” said the NC leader who has not been permitted to move out of his home over the last 80 days.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)