Barely seven months after the fall of the BJP-supported government led by Mehbooba Mufti, Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik announced that the state is ready for new elections.
“We are fully prepared to hold assembly elections,” he told reporters in Jammu, the winter capital. He even suggested that the Election Commission could simultaneously hold the assembly and parliament polls, signifying very strong confidence in his administration and the situation in general.
This is despite the fact that his rule – which later turned into president’s rule due to a constitutional technicality – has been no different from the previous Mufti government as officially provoked and sanctioned violence, including civilian killings, continues without fail. Therefore, such optimism is, at best, very ambitious.
It also demonstrates the limits of India’s compassion for Kashmir. Rather than addressing the root cause of the problem that forced India to deploy nearly half of its troops in Kashmir, it chooses to see the plans to hold elections under any circumstances as its success. Besides, the institutions that function in the name of democracy are, for all practical purposes, managed and operated by New Delhi through various coercive mechanisms – legal or illegal.
One of the reasons for this clamour for elections is perhaps the ‘successful’ conduct of the municipal and panchayati elections that concluded late last year. Less than two months after the imposition of governor’s rule, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a passionate cause for the local bodies or panchayat elections.
In his Independence Day address last year, he claimed that people were meeting him with requests to hold the polls. “Every villager from Jammu and Kashmir has been demanding [elections] for the past year. The panch meet me in hundreds and they are demanding that panchayat elections should be held in the state”. The prime minister added: “I am happy to say that in the coming months the people of Jammu and Kashmir will get an opportunity to exercise their right and set up their own system”.
Weeks after the elections, Modi met nearly 50 of the newly-elected representatives in mid-December last year in New Delhi. But the congregation lacked the enthusiasm that was displayed at his Independence Day speech. A report on his personal website, narendramodi.in, described the meeting in an unflattering tone, and puffed up by drab cliches. “The delegation conveyed its appreciation to the prime minister for empowering the institutions of local self-governance through the successful and peaceful conduct of Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir”. In response, “the prime minister congratulated local representatives for the courage displayed by them in the face of heavy odds; and for successfully participating in the democratic process, despite threats and intimidation”. He also “conveyed his best wishes to the newly-elected representatives [and] exhorted them to strive for the welfare and upliftment of people”.
The lack of passion in the official communique is quite obvious and there are strong reasons for it. Contrary to the claims made by the Indian prime minister, there was limited enthusiasm for the exercise. While Jammu and Ladakh saw mass participation, the Kashmir Valley – the main hub of the pro-freedom rebellion – witnessed little public involvement.
According to the official electoral data, only 30 percent of panchayat halqas (or cluster of villages) witnessed some polling activity. Out of the total 2,135 panchayat halqas in the Kashmir Valley, more than half – 1,407 halqas – saw no contest for want of candidates or contestants winning unopposed. In several instances, contestants feigned ignorance about their participation, accusing ‘unknown’ elements of filling out election applications on their behalf and without their consent.
Despite such elaborate plans, no candidates could be ‘found’ for 700 halqas, leaving them unrepresented. When the exercise is broken to smaller panch wards, it shows a more dismal picture. Out of 17,059 wards in the valley, only 1,656 experienced a contest, with nearly 64 percent wards having no candidates. In South Kashmir, which comprises Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama, and Shopian, the polling participation was appallingly low at less than two percent. Only 96 panch wards saw any polling out of the total 5,847.
If there was any lesson to be drawn from the Panchayati poll fiasco, particularly in Kashmir province, it would have be an urgent need to restore public confidence. But that has never seemed to be a priority for New Delhi. Instead, successive Indian governments have controlled Kashmiri sentiments and aspirations through brutal crackdowns, as alluded to by India’s former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha in a public discussion in early January.
In June 2018, soon after the imposition of governor’s rule, Sinha, a BJP stalwart who understands his party’s machinations, had warned that his political organisation would exploit the situation. “There is no doubt that the issue in the state will help the BJP accentuate communalism and polarisation. They will rake this up in the elections to come”. This might be another reason why the BJP government is pushing for elections in the state before the coming general elections slated for April-May this year. It will offer a ready and receptive context for the BJP’s ever-expanding anti-Pakistan and anti-terror (Kashmiri) narrative that might help cover some lost ground ahead of the polls.
The BJP desperately needs Kashmiri collaborators for its new project. It seems the National Conference (NC) is entering into a tactical pre-poll alliance with the BJP that would gain both parties seats in the Kashmir and Jammu provinces. As Kashmiris are nursing the grief unleashed by the Muftis in the post-Burhan Wani setting, they have conveniently forgotten the violence during the successive reigns of the NC.
This gives some hope to the Abdullahs – Farooq and his son Omar – as they have started the campaign through several public meetings to warm reception, reigniting their hopes to once again gain power. That is why earlier this week Omar Abdullah demanded that polls should be held “as soon as possible” while criticising some politicians and bureaucrats for “creating hurdles” in the way of conducting the exercise.
And the BJP is happy. If the elections are held as suggested, Jammu and Kashmir might see yet another coalition government – this time with the BJP and the NC as likely bedfellows.