J&K polls: Democratic commitment or electoral farce?

While other states will hold both Assembly and parliamentary polls simultaneously, such an arrangement has been withdrawn for Jammu and Kashmir.

WrittenBy:Anuradha Bhasin
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At the fag end of 2018, Jammu and Kashmir’s panchayats and urban local bodies went to polls. While brisk and robust polling was reported in Jammu and Ladakh regions, in the Valley, the polls went down notoriously as the “ghost elections”. The two main regional players—National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)—boycotted the polls over the Article 35(A) controversy. Therefore 1,600 seats witnessed no polls and in majority seats, the electorate was left in suspense about the identity of the candidates they were to vote for till they pressed the final button on the EVMs. Kashmir is not unfamiliar to such farcical elections.


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So when the Election Commission of India on Sunday announced parliamentary polls across the country including J&K, it begs the question on how authentic these elections can be, particularly in the Valley.

In the backdrop of continuing insurgency, violence, serious law and order issues, fear and disenchantment of large sections of public in the Valley and resultant calls for poll boycott, in most likelihood the polling percentage in Kashmir will remain as abysmally low as 2 to 5 per cent in hundreds of polling booths, if not all. The inability of the government to go ahead with the by-poll to the South Kashmir parliamentary seat, pending since 2016, further casts a shadow of scepticism over the possibility and practicability of such an exercise. Elections are genuine only if held in a free and fair atmosphere. Kashmir’s landscape looks anything but promising for that goal.

If the recent “ghost” panchayat elections are any indication, everything gets legitimacy in Kashmir in the name of national interest or democratic exercise.

Ironically, similar pretexts were used to gloss over the hasty dissolution of the state assembly by the state governor, five months after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled out of the PDP-led coalition government in the state on frivolous grounds. Governor Satya Pal Malik who spoke about the need to restore democracy in the state, while announcing elections to the local bodies, chose to “save democracy from the jod-tod alliance of NC-PDP-Cong” while dissolving the Assembly.

Holding timely and periodic elections is an important democratic commitment. At its core lies public interest. Elections are a necessity to meet the aspirations of the public and periodically empower them with the right to choose their representatives. On Sunday, however, when the Chief Election Commissioner announced the election schedule, giving a go-ahead for Lok Sabha polls in J&K but giving Assembly polls a miss (unlike the simultaneous polls being held in states where Assembly polls are due), the government’s disjointed and disoriented approach—if not brazenly partisan—towards the most sensitive and complex state of the country couldn’t have been more evident.

The conflict-ridden state with its dangerous dynamics of insurgency and militarisation has slipped into deeper chaos since June 2018 when the state government fell. The local bodies that were constituted after the November-December 2018 elections—half of which were a sham—continue to remain non-functional. The absence of the important link of a state government is one of the contributing factors. From the point of view of democratic elections, the prime needs of the electorate of J&K can be better fulfilled by holding the assembly elections. This is in view of their ability to provide a state-level government that can live up to regional aspirations of the people and their needs. In a troubled state like J&K, it also fulfils the need of acting as a buffer, howsoever weak, between the disenchanted people and the Centre.

The dangers of a prolonged spell of governor’s rule and reins of power virtually in the hands of an RSS-inspired BJP, whose contempt for Kashmiris and ambition of raising contentious issues, need not be overemphasised. The BJP government and its governor in J&K overstepped their brief on February 28 last, while extending two amendments to J&K Constitution pertaining to promotions for SC/ST candidates and for introducing the newly-introduced 10 per cent quota to the economically weaker sections. The Union Cabinet also amended the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Act of 2004 through an ordinance, extending the reservation benefits available to people living along the Line of Actual Control to permanent residents living along the International Border, without taking into account the varying degrees of backwardness in the two areas and the threats emanating from hostile border climate.

That such moves have inspired fears of attempts to dilute the special status of the state and blatant violation of the Article 370 are only the latest indication that governor’s rule is no substitute to popular government. Rather, the former can contribute in further muddying the waters of the already troubled state waiting to explode.

Democratic elections ensure participation of people in the process of governance through a three-tier structure of Parliament, legislature and local bodies. While J&K will go for parliamentary polls in April, the panchayat elections were held in the state about three months ago. It is only the middle and the most crucial rung of governance that is left completely missing. In the case of J&K, what is the justification for singularly undermining the significance of the middle rung of this three-tier structure?

While other states are going for Assembly and parliamentary polls simultaneously, such an arrangement has been set aside for J&K for security reasons—an argument which is untenable. The Chief Election Commissioner while making the announcement skirted the impact of overall security scenario of the state including the law and order situation due to insurgency in the Valley and communally volatile situation in rest of the state. He also failed to address the tense border situation. All these factors are likely to impact the polling percentages or the patterns of polling.

Instead, he spoke essentially about the difficulty of providing security to a multiplicity of candidates if the elections to the State Assembly were to be held along with Lok Sabha polls. The number of contestants in Assembly polls are much less than panchayat polls. If the latter could be provided security four months ago, why not for Assembly polls? Also, simultaneous polls in J&K will reduce the financial, administrative and security burden in many ways. But if security issues is still concerned to be a bottleneck, it needs to be borne in mind that Assembly elections for the state—which can pave way for the formation of a government and can provide day-to-day governance—are a much more crucial need for the people than sending representatives to the Lok Sabha.

So what, indeed, is the criteria for deciding on elections for J&K? As per democratic ethos, the criteria should be based on the needs of the electorate, not the whims of the governing party that wants to retain its bastion. In an extremely competitive season, even single-digit numbers such as J&K’s six parliamentary seats assume a greater significance. Lok Sabha elections in the state are more crucial for national parties, particularly the BJP, not for the public of the state. Clearly, then the very purpose of this democratic exercise is being defeated even before it can be held because it is not being visualised from the point of view of the electorate.

Since 1996, the Assembly elections have been held uninterrupted. Between 2002 and 2014, the state witnessed—by and large—free and fair polls and registered brisk polling. Before that, electoral frauds have been committed on the people of J&K, and favourites of Delhi have managed to govern the state. Even the most democratically-elected governments have not been free from manipulations by New Delhi. Selectively omitting the most important rung of governance, while going ahead with elections in an atmosphere surcharged with anger, fear and divisiveness, does not only signal a return to the policy of ham-handed elections in J&K. It amounts to committing a much bigger electoral farce.

In the last two decades, New Delhi has excessively flaunted its ability to hold regular and timely elections in J&K as a measure of normalcy and proof of its democratic commitment in the state. These claims are easily punctured by the daily rigmarole of violence, insurgency, militarisation and rising graph of human rights abuse. Democratic commitments, which certainly go beyond the ritual of electoral exercise, are fulfilled also by ensuring civil liberties of the public, right to life, right to freedom of expression and other fundamental rights that people outside J&K enjoy in far greater measure. Instead of moving towards that end, the announcement of elections demonstrate that state is being deliberately deprived of even the autonomy and power that it was enjoying till recently.


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