Kashmir: Civic poll boycott shows deepened alienation

The urban local body polls in Jammu and Kashmir may have concluded peacefully, albeit with dismal voter turnout, especially in the Valley, it only served to further alienate Kashmiris, who feel that Delhi imposed elections on them without taking ground realities into consideration. The lack of interest of the people in Kashmir can be gauged from the mere 5% voter turn-out recorded in the Valley. 

After the BJP withdrew support to the coalition government in June this year in J&K, where it was in power with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) since 2015, Delhi blew the civic-poll bugle despite regional parties’ reluctance to participate in the exercise. The PDP and the National Conference (NC), citing the challenge to Article 35A in the Supreme Court as the reason, asked the Centre to clarify  its stand on it and take “effective steps” to protect it, before they could participate in the polls.

The separatists as usual called for poll boycott and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant outfit issued a strong warning to those participating in the polls, asking them to get shrouds along with the election forms. With violence, street protests and rising local recruitment into militancy, it became difficult to even find candidates in nearly 200 wards that went uncontested. Overall, in the Valley, 215 wards out of 624 went uncontested while 177 wards did not find even a single candidate. In nearly 69% of wards, no polling was witnessed and voting could be held in only 232 wards or 31% of the areas in Kashmir, for which 715 candidates — about three candidates per ward — were in the fray.

There is a general perception in the Valley that the BJP, which does not have a single assembly or parliamentary victory and no political foothold in the Valley, is using the municipal and panchayat polls to make a backdoor entry. This has annoyed people to an extent that even a mainstream leader like Naeem Akhtar, who till a few months back was a minister in the PDP-BJP government, termed these elections a “fraud in which non-resident candidates were foisted on the people.” He warned that such elections “will lead to further erosion of the credibility of the Indian State amid Kashmiris.”

Separatists, who have been calling for election boycott for the last three decades, got a shot in the arm after a clear majority in Kashmir boycotted the polls. They claimed that the “rejection of so-called elections by 95% people, forced upon them by New Delhi, is a clear indication that alienation of people of Kashmir from India is complete.”

BJP’s gain

In 2008, after the summer unrest over the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, in which more than 50 civilian protesters were killed and thousands wounded, separatists had called for boycott of the assembly polls in November-December that year. But the people came out to vote in droves.

The same happened after the 2010 summer unrest, when panchayat elections were held next summer. So, that the people boycotted the elections this time cannot only be due to the separatists’ boycott call or threats by militants. The hardline policy of the BJP-led Centre towards Kashmir in the last four years has pushed people to the wall. The result is that no one is interested in polls.

The only party that gained, from north to south in the Valley from these polls, is the BJP. Taking advantage of the void, the saffron party fielded candidates in almost all areas of the Valley. For the first time in the electoral history of J&K, the BJP took control of seven municipal committees in the Valley unopposed.

Thanks to the militant threat and the NC-PDP boycott, as many as 70 BJP nominees were elected unopposed and the majority of these are in the districts of Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama —South Kashmir’s hotbed of militancy, where BJP men have never dared to set foot so far. Though NC and PDP’s decision to not contest the elections played a big role in handing over these municipalities on a platter to the BJP, what surprised many was the Congress’ inability to field candidates in many of these wards. In most of the wards, which went uncontested, the BJP gained as it was the only party which could field candidates.

On ground, in most areas in Kashmir, people were clueless about the poll exercise, with most of them complaining that they did not know who the candidates were nor even when to vote. Due to militants’ threats, the names of contesting candidates were neither made public nor was any campaigning held openly. The candidates were given security and most of them were taken to secure locations. The threat was not only from militants, but from mobs as well. This was perhaps the most low-profile election in the history of the state. 

The only silver-lining was that the polls were conducted without any major violence despite the boycott call from separatists and militant threats. Last time, the Valley witnessed Lok Sabha bypolls in April 2017, and the day ended with the death of nine civilians and a low record of voter turnout -– only 7%.

After the municipal polls, with the nine-phase panchayat polls scheduled to be held from November 17 to December 11, it seems the situation will remain more or less the same as far as voter turnout is concerned. Unlike the municipal polls, the panchayat polls will be held on a non-party basis. Both the NC and PDP have announced boycott of the panchayat polls too. However, political observers believe, the two regional parties may field proxy candidates in bulk, which could improve the polling percentage.

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Kashmir: Civic poll boycott shows deepened alienation

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