Phones rang urgently across Jammu and Kashmir from early on Wednesday, 23 December, morning, as the important business of bargaining and buying got going. Yes, the real fight got underway only after the local bodies’ and district council elections’ results were declared on Tuesday. This fight is to capture council, panchayat, and municipality chairperson’s posts.
Many panchayats and municipalities already have chairpersons – since these were by-elections at those levels – but a very large number of panchayat and municipality seats were vacant. Indeed, when elections were held in late 2018, not a single person had stood for some panchayats and municipalities – Khrew municipality, for instance.
The district councils are new, and the wheelers, dealers, movers and shakers of Jammu and Kashmir’s political world are eager to get to the powers – and development budgets – that these councils will get. Chairpersons, it is presumed, will be very influential, especially as long as there is no assembly.
The election of chairpersons will be hard fought in several districts in the Valley, for a single party does not have a majority on its own in most districts. Not just that, three or four parties and several independents have been elected in several districts.
Take Shopian, for instance: three each from the PDP, the NC, and Independents, two from Apni Party, and one from the Congress. Of the 14 in Baramulla, the PDP, the Congress, (Lone’s) People’s Conference, the NC, and Apni Party won two or three each, while three seats were taken by Independents.
In some districts, a lot depends on how many of those elected as Independents are already affiliated to a party, and whether or not they will join hands with those officially elected from that party. Being counted as an Independent gives them a free hand.
The market for votes within each district council is much bigger in the Kashmir valley, since a lot more Independents won there than in the Jammu division.
Even in the latter, the largest numbers of Independents have been elected in the Chenab basin: six in Poonch, three in Ramban, two in Kishtwar, and one each in Rajouri and Doda. Only four Independents have been elected from the other five districts, where the BJP’s core base is located.
Bidding Begins With Tens of Lakhs
Bidding is said to have begun with an offer of Rs 35 lakh from one party for each new district council member’s vote in at least one district. The head of a small party remarked sotto voce that amounts would easily go up to a crore rupees.
Parties also began to worriedly assess how many of their members, who have been elected as Independents, would remain loyal, or be up for purchase. Would offers be necessary to keep them loyal, especially where only one or two have been elected from a party?
Some members of one or other party had filed a nomination as an Independent after the mandate was given to an alliance partner (some even, it seems, with the covert backing of party bosses) or to another candidate from the same party.
Javeed Bhat, the NC youth president for Pulwama, for instance, was elected as an Independent and Mohd Maqbool Chopan, a former NC sarpanch, won the Hermain seat in Shopian district.
No wonder, being the most popular in the Valley, the National Conference seems to have a number of such 'affiliated Independents’.
BJP’s Strong Hand
There was much breathless speculation in Kashmir’s eternally buzzing gossip bazars, even among those not directly involved in back-room negotiations, about how much the BJP might offer Independents to join its bandwagon. The ruling party is presumed to have vast amounts to spend, and a willingness to engage.
The BJP has a clear majority in five of the 10 districts of the Jammu province, and seven or exactly half the members in a sixth, Reasi. In fact, it won 13 out of 14 seats each in Kathua and Samba districts, and 11 each in Jammu and Udhampur districts, plus eight of the 14 in Doda.
Although the population of Doda district is almost evenly divided between Hindus and Muslims, the district councils have been elected from rural constituencies, and Hindus dominate Doda’s rural belts.
Interestingly, the lone non-BJP member of the Kathua district council is from the BSP.
With six seats each in Kishtwar and Ramban, and five in Rajouri, the NC should be able to get a chairman elected in all three districts with the support of three Congress members in Rajouri and Kishtwar, respectively, and two in Ramban. Or, it may give one of the three chairpersons’ posts to the Congress as part of a deal.
Plus, there is one PDP member in Rajouri – the only one to have been elected from that party in all of the Jammu province.
Unless some of those elected from the NC and the Congress are lured away, Poonch – which elected six independents – is the only one of the 10 Jammu division districts that could see an interesting chairperson’s election.
Four Congress members, two of the NC, one PDP rebel, and one Congress rebel would together have a majority, as long as they all stick together. If not, a strong Independent contender could possibly pull off a surprise – quite possibly with help from backers.
(David Devadas is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage’ in Kashmir (OUP). He tweets @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)