In Jammu and Kashmir, it's BJP vs the rest

In Jammu and Kashmir, it's BJP vs the rest

District elections in J&K will reveal the political mood in the Valley

With the first-ever District Development Council (DDC) polls in Jammu and Kashmir set to begin later this month, political activities in the region, which had come to a halt since last August when the Centre revoked the erstwhile state’s special status under Article 370, have gained momentum.

Ever since the Election Commission announced on November 4 that DDC polls will take place in the Union Territory (UT) in eight phases from November 28 to December 19, political temperature in Jammu & Kashmir has started to rise. The decision of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) to contest these polls has added flavour to the sombre political mood in the Valley. Besides the two main regional parties, National Conference (NC) and PDP, the PAGD has CPI, CPM and four other smaller parties as its constituents. It was formed on October 15 to work towards restoring the special status of J&K.

By holding DDC elections, the J&K government wants to complete the three-tier system of Panchayat Raj. Prior to the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, J&K did not have a three-tier Panchayat Raj system. For setting up of DDCs, the members of which will be directly elected by voters in the UT, the Centre on October 17 amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Raj Act, 1989. The J&K administration also amended the J&K Panchayat Raj Rules, 1996, to provide for establishment of elected DDCs.

Read: Polls part of process to hand over power to people

Under the new mechanism, each district will be divided into 14 territorial constituencies by the respective deputy commissioners for electing their representatives. These representatives will then elect from among themselves the chairman and vice-chairman of these councils, which are set to become the new units of governance in the region. The new structure will include, besides the DDCs, a District Planning Committee (DPC) and will replace District Planning and Development Boards (DDBs) which used to prepare and approve district plans and capital expenditure. While in the old system a cabinet minister of the erstwhile state of J&K would head a DDB, the key feature of the new system is that the DDCs will have elected representatives from each district.

Under the new system, Panchayat will act as a basic unit and each district’s yearly and five-yearly development plans will be finalised by a three-tier system of Gram Panchayats, Block Development Councils (BDCs) and DDCs. This is akin to having municipal-type powers for the rural areas on a supra-block level template to construct roads and manage utilities like power supply and water. There will be no legislative component.

The BDC elections, held last November, just four months after the scrapping of Article 370, failed to revive any political activity in the UT. Before that, panchayat elections were conducted in November-December 2018, which also met with little success as more than 60% panch and sarpanch berths remained vacant in Kashmir as the NC and PDP boycotted these polls. The poll boycott by the NC and PDP had given a walkover to the BJP in the panchayat elections in the Valley. As a result, the saffron party candidates managed to win panch and sarpanch elections at several places in Kashmir.

When the DDC polls were announced, the two regional parties opposed it and claimed that the creation of these councils is aimed to further “disempower” the J&K Assembly. They termed the establishment of the DDCs as part of the “systematic pattern of disempowerment of the people of J&K which started on August 5, 2019.” However, after a few days, they reluctantly joined the process, in a bid to stop the BJP juggernaut from reaching Kashmir Valley. The announcement of the Gupkar Alliance to participate in the DDC elections assumes significance as the NC and PDP had boycotted urban local bodies and panchayat elections in 2018. At that time, both these parties had sought assurances from the Modi government on preserving Article 35A.

On the other hand, the ruling BJP has for the last two years been openly saying that it wants to create a “new leadership” in J&K to counter the dynastic parties (NC and PDP), whom they blame for the rise in militancy, corruption and mis-governance in the erstwhile state. In an article in a national daily in August last year, BJP’s then national general secretary Ram Madhav wrote that “Kashmir needs a new leadership, built not on the separatist narrative of the 20th century but on the development narrative of the 21st century.”

The DDC is the right platform for an experiment for the BJP before the first Assembly polls of the Union Territory. However, the reality is that the leadership cannot be invented or manufactured. Those elected in panchayats (in 2018) are living in secured places as they fear they may be killed by militants if they go back to their respective constituencies. In the absence of any goodwill among the common people, no public representative can live without security.

Despite political activity in J&K coming to a halt since last August, the BJP has gone from strength to strength. The saffron party has consolidated its organisational structure, especially in Kashmir, where it has never won a Parliamentary or Assembly seat. Till the PAGD decided to jump into the poll fray, winning the DDC election seemed like a cake walk for the saffron party. The chances of the BJP winning any seats in Kashmir Valley or in Muslim-majority areas of Jammu region now seem bleak.

On the ground, the common Kashmiri, haunted by a militarised presence and an uncertain future, is clueless as what to do next. The discussion on the streets, over dinner tables, inside coffee houses and at playgrounds, echoes that the BJP-led Centre wants to change the demography of the only Muslim-majority state. The formation of the PAGD may have come as little solace for the common man in Kashmir, but they want the alliance to continue its struggle for restoration of special status, beyond the DDC polls.

However, the PAGD seems to be failing the “unity test.” Fissures have started emerging in the PAGD as there is no consensus on seat-sharing in the Valley, where the alliance is supposed to have more sway. Now, its reach and sphere of influence are also coming into question as the partners in the alliance are fighting against each other in Jammu region. Moreover, the Congress party, despite being a signatory to the Gupkar Declaration, has made it clear that its involvement with the alliance is restricted to the DDC polls. It has condemned Mehbooba Mufti’s statement that she would not fly the Indian flag unless she’s allowed to fly the J&K flag, too; the party also condemned Farooq Abdullah for seeking to involve foreign forces (read Pakistan and China) in India’s internal matters. The Congress has also fielded its candidates in opposition to those from the alliance in some seats in the Valley.

The bickering within the alliance at this very early stage itself has dampened the spirits of the common Kashmiri to some extent. However, the main constituents of the PAGD – the NC and PDP – have a compulsion to remain together as their existence is at stake in the wake of the BJP’s rise in the Union Territory. The BJP seems determined to decimate the two dynastic regional parties, and this is the reason both the Abdullahs and the Muftis will have to support each other.

There is no doubt that the voting percentage in these elections will increase significantly compared to the panchayat elections held in 2018. This is the chance for the people of Kashmir to show what they think about the Narendra Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370 and Article 35A. The rural electorate, which constitutes more than 70% of voters in J&K, will have voting rights during the DDC election.

The DDC elections will have a bearing on the dynamics and the prospects of elections for the new Assembly in the UT. The PAGD constituents will have to answer some tough questions in the coming months. They are walking on thin ice here. Boycotting these polls would have further marginalised them, as happened when they boycotted the panchayat and urban local body polls in 2018. Participating in the polls, without resistance, may be seen as legitimising the abrogation of Article 370.