Just about every party in Kashmir has been drawn into the mud pit of competitive bargaining, either to win independents or members of other parties over, or to retain the loyalties of those who were elected with their support.
Each is vying to get a nominee, or favourite, elected as chairperson of one or several of the newly-elected District Development Councils (DDCs).
Not just that, factions within some parties have made efforts separately in what they consider their home turf.
The Apni Party, led by businessman and former minister Altaf Bukhari, was first off the bat to persuade new members to join the party, or at least vote with it for the election of chairperson. It has had some success, and might be able to install favourites in three or four of the ten districts in the Valley.
The BJP is making efforts separately to lure some to join the ruling party.
However, several observers, including National Conference (NC) leaders, say that elements of the State machinery are ‘helping’ the Apni Party. This could be a result of personal loyalties, money power, or calculations among certain officers about the likely future trajectories of power.
Older parties, mainly NC and PDP, too are doing what they can to ensure that their members remain loyal, and others join their fold. One leader even publicly mentioned spending money.
Some newly-elected members have been visited by police and army officers. The latter only visited to congratulate and extend a hand of friendship to those elected, according to a ranking officer, but some of the police officers have apparently advised some newly-elected members on where they should stay.
Arguing that they were not safe at home, they persuaded some of these members to move to certain safer locations in Pulwama and Shopian districts.
That was fair enough, except that, at those locations, the members found factotums of a certain party, eager to explain to them the advantages of joining that party.
Such efforts have been fruitful in some cases.
The National Conference’s ‘Battle’
Similar efforts have been made in Srinagar district too, where a yo-yo battle has developed. National Conference President Farooq Abdullah wooed some of his flock back. Then, the Apni Party lured some of them right back again.
That match is still on.
Since NC is part of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), some of its members also contested as independents from constituencies that had been allotted to one of the other six parties in the alliance. Since NC is clearly the most popular party in the Valley, many of those who are affiliated to it won, even as independents.
It is these members, and other independents, that appear to be the prime targets of the efforts at persuasion. As independents, they can easily join any party they choose.
Since chairpersons are to be chosen by a secret vote, some of those who won on a party ticket too have been lured to cross-vote, and some to cross the floor entirely. One NC winner is said to have defected on the promise that her brother-in-law would be released from detention.
Stating this on record last week, NC Vice-President Omar Abdullah said the police was coercing his party members. “J&K Police and the administration are facilitating horse-trading and defections. The woman shown here joining the BJP’s B-team contested and won elections on an NC mandate,” he tweeted in reference to a party member who had openly joined the Apni Party.
Strains In People’s Conference
While individual members who have been elected are being targeted for a change of affiliation, the parties in the PAGD remain anchored in it, partly as a defence against the strenuous efforts by others to poach their members.
The PDP in any case gained from being part of the alliance. According to the grapevine, Sajjad Lone also wants to keep his People’s Conference (PC) loyal to the alliance. However, a powerful faction of the party may not be as willing.
The CPI(M) is very likely to remain loyal to the alliance, in the expectation that one of its five members who were elected from Kulgam district is elected the chairperson.
That would have to be the lone woman elected on a CPI(M) ticket, for the district is one of those in which the chair is reserved for a woman. The alliance only gave the Left party those five seats in the pocket borough of its long-standing Kulgam MLA, Yusuf Tarigami, and it won them all.
As things stand, the PAGD should prevail in Kulgam and Anantnag districts while the Apni Party’s efforts might succeed in the other two districts of south Kashmir, Pulwama and Shopian. A leading light of the erstwhile state’s cultural world is its point man in Shopian.
The PAGD should succeed in PC’s pocket borough, Kupwara (with 5 PC and 4 NC members among 13) and in Ganderbal (with 6 NC and 4 PDP members among 14) but keen tugs-of-war are underway behind the scenes in Baramulla, Bandipora, Budgam, and Srinagar.
Why District-Level Elections Are Important
I have been a strong advocate of district-level elections. These could energise development and grassroots connect at a level that is small enough to be within reach of ordinary people, and yet large enough to be able to move the vast and extremely powerful bureaucracy of the place.
For this to work well, however, people must have confidence in not only the electoral process, but also the openness of the election of chairpersons, the independent functioning of each council, and its responsiveness to the needs of the area.
Instead, Kashmir is aswirl with talk of vast amounts changing hands, and of coercion. The latter charge leaves a particularly bad taste, for turning the arrest, detention, and release of citizens into bargaining chips for political jockeying is vile. It undermines democracy, the rule of law, and the fight against terrorism.
Indeed, any sort of involvement of security forces in the political process is deeply disturbing, bringing to mind as it does what happens routinely across the border.
Such goings-on run the risk of souring the very positive impact that could have stemmed from the conduct of free and fair elections.
In a place like Kashmir, it might have been tempting to manipulate the polls. The establishment should not lose out on the intangible but very real positive effect of a free and fair poll.
Impact Of Free & Fair Elections
When assembly elections were held in 2002, the government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had given strict orders that no soldier should stray within a kilometre of any polling booth.
Those instructions were strictly followed, while the most free and fair elections were conducted by an election commission headed by JM Lyngdoh, and polling officers drawn from among Urdu teachers of UP and Bihar.
That process worked wonders. Not only did militancy decrease sharply over the next few years, the minds and hearts of young people changed substantially.
As I have detailed in my book, The Generation of Rage in Kashmir, many teenagers would root for an Indian cricket team against Pakistan by 2005-06, even in the privacy of their homes.
That process made it obvious that winning minds and hearts is best done through political and societal means.
(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.)