J&K panchayat polls: right move at the wrong time?

After a delay of more than 18 months, the Jammu and Kashmir government has announced that it will hold panchayat polls in the state from February 15. The announcement came at a time when the fragile security situation in the Valley has already forced the government to postpone by-polls for the Anantnag parliamentary seat in south Kashmir for over a year now.

The panchayat poll dates have been announced without taking into consideration the ground situation in Kashmir, where continued civilian killings, militant attacks and encounters and the resultant uncertainty have marginalised mainstream politics to an extent that most political parties have not been able to hold any public rally in the Valley in nearly two years.

Since 2011, when the last panchayat polls were held in the state after a gap of more than three decades, over a dozen panchayat members have been shot dead and around 30 injured in militant attacks. The 2011 panchayat polls had witnessed a turnout of 80% and were held just six months after the 2010 summer unrest, in which more than 100 civilians were killed in street protests.

Pakistan-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief Syed Salah-ud-Din had at that time initially said that they would not target people associated with the panchayat poll process. He reneged on that claiming later that panchayat officials were exploited by India to project Kashmir as pro-India and so "they would continue to be targeted, no matter how much the government tries to secure them."

But this time, immediately after the government announced that it will hold the panchayat polls in the state, Riyaz Naikoo - a Hizbul commander believed to be based in south Kashmir - threatened to "pour acid" into the eyes of the panchayat poll contestants - something that has apparently disturbed both the security agencies as well as the government.

Additional Director General of Police Muneer Khan was candid in admitting that there was a "threat" to the contesting candidates and that the police were not in a position to provide security to each one of them. On the other hand, Nayeem Akhtar, a senior minister in the Mehbooba government, said in an indirect appeal to militants, "Nobody claims that elections are a substitute for the resolution of the political problem of Kashmir." He tried to apparently influence the militant leadership by saying that elections can't change the nature of the Kashmir issue and that the panchayat poll process, was purely an "empowerment project."

The threat call by militants isn't the only challenge the government faces. The "joint resistance leadership" of separatists comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik has already upped the ante against the polls and is waiting for an opportunity to exploit the situation to trigger 2016-like unrest in the Valley. They have called for its complete boycott, saying "such an exercise is only meant to harm national interests of Kashmir."

The opposition, including Congress and National Conference leaders, has criticised the government's haste in announcing the poll dates as they say it hasn't provided for the safety and security of candidates. Senior state Congress leader G N Monga, who represents panchayats in the upper house of J&K, asks how the government can hold panchayat polls when the situation is not conducive to hold even a parliamentary by-election? He says the government should ensure the security of panchayat members before going ahead.

The state has 4,378 panchayats, with around 36,000 wards, and needs at least one lakh candidates for successful elections. Holding elections to grassroots democratic institutions is a 'good move', but the government may be implementing it at a 'bad time'. The state government this year presented a separate budget for panchayats, with a Rs 1,000 crore outlay. It has also promised an additional 10% of tax revenues of the state for the panchayats, which is around another Rs 1,000 crore.

Boycott worries

Another worry that is haunting the government is the fear of a general boycott. Even if somehow the government manages to hold polls, there is a likelihood that the voter turnout will be minimal. It will give ammunition to separatists and Pakistan to project the boycott as a "referendum against India." The best option for the PDP-BJP government at the moment is not to hold the polls for some more time. No elections were held in the state from 1989 to 1996, and not holding panchayat polls at this time won't be a big issue. But that begets another difficult question: Is J&K back to the early 1990s?

Still, there are several villages in south Kashmir which are 'no-go' areas for mainstream politicians. The elections have been planned at a time when hundreds of political workers have migrated from their villages in south Kashmir and are taking shelter in Srinagar, Jammu or New Delhi fearing attacks by militants. Both ruling and opposition parties haven't been able to hold any mega party functions in the four districts of south Kashmir - Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag - since last year. The few rallies that were held weren't without a huge security cover.

The April 2011 panchayat polls had surprised many, since at that time anger was running deep, just like today. But on polling days, long queues outside polling booths dealt a setback to separatists who had called for a boycott. If the poll exercise goes smoothly this time, too, it will not only be a victory of the government and a blow to separatists, but more importantly it will push mainstream political discourse to the front. However, if there is a backlash, the situation could turn ugly and holding future elections in Kashmir could become an increasingly fraught task.

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