Kashmir poll turnout worrying

The low voter turnout in constituencies in the Kashmir Valley that have participated in polling so far is reason for grave concern. Just 13.63% of Anantnag’s registered voters showed up to exercise their franchise on April 23 in the first of the three-phase polling in this restive constituency. Voter participation in Srinagar has been just as worrying. It reported a turnout of 14.05% in the voting on April 18. Turnout in some segments were in single digits. Bijbihara, the hometown of former chief minister and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti saw a turnout of just 2.04%. Around 50 polling booths in Srinagar did not see a single voter show up to exercise their franchise. Most of these booths are located in Habba Kadal, Eidgah and Khanyar in downtown Srinagar. Political leaders from the Valley are blaming logistical problems for the low turnout. Polling stations were clustered together in the name of security. Consequently, voters had to walk several kilometres to reach a polling booth. While this may be a reason for voter apathy, it provides only a partial explanation.

It is disillusionment with democratic processes and institutions that is keeping Kashmiri voters from exercising their franchise. Rage with the Indian State has surged dangerously in recent years as the Narendra Modi government has leaned heavily on the use of coercive force to quell the unrest in the Valley. After the PDP joined hands with the BJP to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir in 2015, disillusionment with electoral politics and politicians deepened. It is now manifesting itself in voter apathy. Kashmiri voters see little to be gained from participating in elections. Fear of militant reprisals, too, is keeping large numbers of registered voters at home. Unlike the Kashmir Valley, voters in the Jammu region have participated in the polls enthusiastically. Turnout in Udhampur constituency in Jammu was 70.19%, higher than even the national turnout so far.

Anantnag will go to the polls again on April 29 and May 6. Voter turnout in these two rounds is expected to be even lower. These areas are the epicentre of the current phase of the militancy. Militant commander Burhan Wani and several militants killed since 2016 were from these areas. These being militant strongholds, attacks on polling stations, voters and security forces can be expected in the coming days. Security should be tightened to safeguard those Kashmiris who continue to retain faith in the democratic process. India has long held up the participation of Kashmiri voters in the democratic process as proof of their support for, and desire to stay with, India. That evidence is weakening.

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