BDC Polls May End Up a Sham in Jammu and Kashmir
The J&K govt’s decision to conduct the polls for constitution of BDCs is historic for a host of conflicting reasons.
The Jammu and Kashmir government’s decision to conduct the first ever elections for constitution of Block Development Councils (BDCs), after incorporation of the provisions of the 73rd Amendment to Constitution of India in the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, is historic for a host of conflicting reasons.
The election in which all panches and sarpanches will be entitled to vote and elect chairpersons for the BDCs will be the last democratic exercise to be conducted in the state before its bifurcation into the two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh on 31 October. These will also be the first elections after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, which granted special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and restricted the right to acquire and own immovable property only to permanent residents as defined in the provisions adopted through the Presidential Order of 1954.
Political Leadership Jailed Since 5 August
Over 200 leaders and activists of different mainstream political parties, including three former Chief Ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – have been arrested and detained in different jails or held under ‘house arrest’ since 5-6 August when the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill was debated and passed in the Parliament. Of them, Farooq Abdullah, currently the National Conference (NC) president and the Lok Sabha member from Central Kashmir has been held under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA).
Almost all Kashmir-based political parties, besides the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have dismissed New Delhi’s move as ‘unconstitutional’ and a number of them have challenged its validity in the Supreme Court.
26,000 Panches, Sarpanches Eligible to Vote
On Sunday, 29 September, Chief Electoral Officer Shailender Kumar announced that the notification for the BDCs in 310 of the 316 blocks would be issued on 1 October and the polling, as well as the counting of votes, will be held on 24 October.
He said that 172 blocks across the state had been reserved for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and women. The CEO said that in all, 26,629 elected panches and sarpanches were eligible to vote and contest for the position of chairpersons of BDCs in their respective blocks. Of them, 8,313 are women.
Holding these elections on party basis at a time when political activity across Jammu and Kashmir has been completely frozen and most of the politicians have been confined to jails, has raised eyebrows.
CEO Kumar parried questions when journalists at his news conference asked him how the aspiring contestants and their parties could file nominations papers, run campaigns and perform other formalities.
“I’ll be responsive to all complaints from political parties and individuals,” Kumar said, after declaring elections for the middle rung of the three-tier Panchayati Raj institutions.
He argued that elections for BDCs would not involve campaigning by door-to-door canvassing and addressing rallies during Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. For journalists and politicians, that was a clear indication that these elections were going to be held in an atmosphere alien to any democratic exercise.
One sarpanch, Bashir Ahmad Mir, and two panches, namely Ali Mohammad Dar and Ghulam Mohammad Mir, in Budgam district, who insisted that their panchayats not be named, said that election of chairpersons to BDCs was logical and binding by law on the authorities.
“In 2011, we had historic participation of over 80 percent turnout in Panchayat elections. We were repeatedly assured that the three-tier institutions would be put in place and funds would flow directly through these institutions. Government neither conducted BDC and Zilla Parishad polls nor did funds flow through PRIs till those existed,” sarpanch Bashir Ahmad Mir complained. “This time around, the government should take it to the logical conclusion.”
However, Mohammad Ashraf Lone, a panch in Kangan area of Ganderbal district contested:
“Even those of us who were elected last year won’t vote or contest in these elections today. These are held in a totally different ambience. All the leaders are in jail and there’s no political activity. Anybody participating in these elections runs the risk of being excommunicated as a traitor to the Kashmiris’ cause. There are apprehensions of reprisals from militants and fears of a social boycott. We are all insecure and vulnerable to attacks from all quarters.”
Over 12,000 Positions in Kashmir Panchayats Vacant
Remarkably, over 12,000 positions of panches and sarpanches are currently vacant in the Kashmir Valley alone as over 90 percent of the electors had stayed away from the Panchayat elections held in November 2018.
The panchayat elections, which were due in 2016 and had not been conducted by the PDP-BJP coalition until its midway collapse, were conducted during the Governor’s rule.
While the separatist outfits had, as usual, called for total boycott to these elections, the mainstream majors, including the Muftis’ PDP and the Abdullahs’ NC, had also not fielded any candidate.
The BJP, its coalition partner People’s Conference (PC) and independents – many of them believed to be the proxy candidates of BJP – were the only beneficiaries of the political vacuum even as nobody filed nomination papers from thousands of the wards.
The BJP government at the Centre and the Governor’s administration has ignored all the criticism over the drama of the Panchayat and the Urban Local Body (ULB) elections and gone out of way to confer the status of minister of state on the Mayors of the Municipal Corporations in Srinagar and Jammu.
New Delhi’s ‘My Way or Highway’ in J&K
The CEO’s announcement on Sunday has made it clear that the Centre has ridiculed all demands of holding fresh elections for Panchayats as well as the ULBs with better peoples’ participation in a conducive atmosphere.
For many, it could have been interpreted as the peoples’ referendum over the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A and splitting the State into two UTs, while also paving the way for the first Assembly elections under the new arrangement. ‘My way or the highway’ seems to continue as the policy of the BJP government at the Centre.
New Delhi seems to have decided to go ahead with the process of installing the BJP’s members and proxies through a dubiously carried out democratic exercise to fill up all positions in Panchayati Raj Institutions and ULBs in J&K.
Days before the CEO’s announcement, election symbols were allotted to the seven national parties – All India Trinamool Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Indian National Congress, Nationalistic Congress and Bharatya Janata Party – and three regional parties, namely NC, PDP and National Panthers Party.
NC, PDP Don’t Have Even Candidates
While none of the seven national parties has a substantial representative base in Kashmir, both NC and PDP, are unlikely to participate in any election under the existing circumstances.
BJP leaders insist that both the regional parties in Kashmir would field their candidates or proxies. They also point out that none of the NC’s three Lok Sabha members or PDP’s two Rajya Sabha members have tendered resignation to protest the abrogation of Article 370.
Significantly, neither of the mainstream majors – NC and PDP – even have candidates to contest the BDC elections. As per the law, only the elected panches and sarpanches are entitled to vote or contest the elections for BDCs.
“It’s a total mockery with the one-odd purpose of occupying the Panchayati Raj Institutions in J&K. When we don’t have even the candidates, how can we participate in these elections?” a PDP leader, who has not been detained, asserted.
“They have fraudulently occupied the ULBs. Now they want to have their own people or proxies in BDCs and zilla parishads. This is what is alienating the Kashmiris and forcing them lose confidence in the Indian systems and democracy”.
A senior NC leader told The Quint that all the regional parties were “on one page” in contesting the Centre’s move and staying away from any elections to be held in current political vacuum.
He said that even the BJP’s former ally, PC, was on the same wavelength and there was a “strong possibility” of the Srinagar Mayor Junaid Mattu tendering his resignation to stay in solidarity with other regional parties.
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