J&K BDC Polls: What Legitimising the Political Leadership Has Done

Despite govt reports of ‘normalcy’ & ‘successful’ polls, lack of celebrations signalled that something was amiss.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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Victors in elections are expected to be paraded aloft shoulders of euphoric supporters. Victory at the hustings is the ultimate reward in a democracy. Ideally, doubt should not remain once the vanquished walks up to the winner, congratulates and gracefully accepts defeat. Such truism however, does not hold true for Jammu and Kashmir, where it is often difficult to differentiate the victor from the overwhelmed.

Since last autumn's panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre and the BJP have been liberal, but only with orchestrated self-congratulatory messages for holding elections, despite the two largest parties — National Conference and People's Democratic Party — boycotting the process. To back its case, the government plied ‘impressive’ data of high voter turnout in the nine-phase local body elections held in the troubled state.

The Sham of ‘Restoring Normalcy’ in J&K

But the absence of celebrations was a sign that something was amiss. It did not take long for the truth to emerge. Sarkari cacophony over the ‘successful’ conduct of the panchayat polls failed to drown ‘true’ news: An overwhelming 61 percent of the panchayat wards in the Valley remained vacant, because no one contested the elections. Likewise, 45 percent of the sarpanch wards remain vacant. Even among elected panchs and sarpanchs, a large number of them won unopposed, or without a contest — so much for the polls being a ‘successful’ example of ‘democracy from below’.

Some years ago, the BJP staged a major shindig when a large number of panchayat seats in West Bengal were bagged by candidates who were elected without being opposed.

Yet, when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir, the party allowed this obvious aberration to go unnoticed, because it would have damaged the BJP's narrative of restoring ‘normalcy’ in J&K.

How BJP is Utilising the Elections

Since the panchayat elections, the winners have been housed in Srinagar hotels, rented and secured by the government. These panchs and sarpanchs fear attacks by militants, and although they travel to villages during the day, spending the night there is unthinkable. The BJP is utilising these (sham) elections to foster (on the Kashmiri people) another tier of local governance system, which is aimed at raising a new grassroots-level leadership in Jammu & Kashmir.

The catch is that, the figures cited above prove neither the existence of any grass nor any roots.

Like always, when structures and political processes are imposed from above, people will remain as alienated as ever from the political process. Despite this, the BJP's efforts at ‘full integration’ of the Valley shall not stop here: the seeming ‘sham’ of fair and successful BDC polls will be followed by those from the last tier: district level chairpersons for the district development boards.

The government is unconcerned that a significant number of BDCs will be elected by a small fraction of the electoral college, because a large number of panchayat halqas are vacant in every block. In that sense, these bodies will not be representative at the least.

Since 1953, many elections are said to have been either uncontested or rigged, and have seemingly failed to draw Kashmiris into India's emotional mainstream.

1987 Elections Erased Faith of Kashmiris in Indian Electoral Process

Since 5 August, even so-called ‘hypocritical’ efforts have been abdicated. There is the realisation that nothing but brute force will work in the short and middle term. As far as the long term is concerned, the search is for 'pliable' clients. Despite the argument that the Centre's step has been motivated by the objective to 'free' from the clutch of dynastic parties, it remains as much a 'patron' as any other (previous) government.

The entire panchayat poll process beginning last year, has disquieting similarities with the March 1987 assembly elections which erased whatever faith Kashmiris had retained in the fairness of the Indian election process.

That election was undeniably rigged because the central government was fearful of losing control of the state's politics.

It was in these elections that a certain Mohammad Yusuf Shah, candidate of the amorphous Muslim United Front from Amira Kadal constituency in the heart of Srinagar, who was expected to win by most accounts, was eventually trumped by election officials who declared the ‘other’ — Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the NC — as the eventual victor.

Tale of Two ‘Shahs’

The margin — according to Election Commission records — was 4,289, but people had no doubt that this was a rigged verdict. India Today in a report on the polls wrote how “reports of rigging and strong-arm tactics kept pouring in from all over the Valley into party offices and the offices of district commissioners”.

The story of the two Shahs is important, because the officially trounced candidate surfaced across the borders in a new avatar — Syed Salahuddin, the chief of militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen.

Before election officials announced the NC candidate as the victor, they arrested Shah and his counting agent, Mohammed Yasin Malik.

This man, then just 21, would go on to head the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and earn much notoriety. The rest is history.

Sham of Elections in J&K

In the elections, which was officially 'swept' by the NC-Congress combine — winning 66 of the 76 seats — the MUF was not recognised, and its candidates contested as independents. Four of them won, although the estimated vote share of the MUF candidates — mentioned in Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, written by academic, Sumantra Bose — was 32 percent higher than the Congress’s share, and almost matching the NC's vote. Bose argued that the “atrocious episode of denial and subversion of democratic rights” had been “entirely consistent” with what had happened over four decades preceding the 1987 polls.

Mood of 1987 in Kashmir Returns

In 1987, an unpopular government was foisted on the people, while the MUF was done in by an administration singing the government's tune. It was a popular front comprising “educated youth, illiterate working class people, and farmers who express their anger against 40 years of 'family rule', corruption, and lack of economic development in the state”. The MUF till date remains the sole political assembly nearest to being spontaneous in Kashmir's history. Yet, the Centre collaborated with state leaders to ‘prevent’ it from winning significant number of seats.

The mood of the people in 1987 is comparable to now, as back then the administration ‘prevented’ the people’s will from marking its presence in an election.

The present semblance of peace in the Valley is no indication of people accepting the Centre's decision to scrap the state's special status.

The BDC election will be yet another ‘success’, as the administration will lose no opportunity to ensure its smooth conduct. Yet, just as 1987 remains a watershed in the state's history, this chapter too shall remain etched as a break point. This stems from the legitimizing of the existing political leadership, and being unable to raise a new force which does not feel the need to seek shelter in government-secured hotels in Srinagar.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book isThe RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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