A delicious set of ironies is emerging around the ongoing local government elections in Kashmir.
A surprisingly enthusiastic lot of independent candidates is throwing their hats into the various little electoral rings across the valley. That sounds like exactly the “new leadership” that the Indian government, especially home minister Amit Shah, has been calling for.
Yet, the government seems to be doing everything – whether deliberately or in effect – to queer the pitch for these independents as well as newly formed small parties and groups.
One would say “believe it or not”, except even Ripley would not have accepted this in his “believe it or not” list, but try this for size: some of the independent candidates have been locked up. No, not jailed. Just placed in safe houses with armed guards preventing them from going out to campaign.
All for their security, officials insist. Of course, it is true that the government is paranoid about militants attacking candidates. That would dampen voting turnout and might cause several other candidates to drop out. But such paranoia can reach absurd limits. When a few candidates protested at Khag in Budgam, pressing the administration to let them out and give them security to campaign, guess how the administration responded. One vehicle with a security guard was provided for five of the candidates to go out and campaign together. The candidates were, of course, dumbfounded. How were they expected to go around in the same vehicle, getting off at the same places, with that same security man, in order to campaign against each other?
Surprising turn of events
When the government decided to hold elections to vacant seats in municipalities and panchayats, it seemed like a foolhardy move for several reasons. One, there was a looming threat of militant attacks. Two, there was a possibility that the turnout of voters as well as candidates might be minimal.
After all, the majority of seats were vacant because few candidates had run in the elections two years ago. In most places, very few people had voted. And even the seats filled had often gone uncontested or seen just two candidates divide up a dozen votes between them.
One municipal ward in Shopian was won with zero votes, by a Kashmiri Pandit based in Jammu. She was the only one who had filed a nomination, but had not gone to Shopian even to vote for herself.
There had been a call to boycott the elections then, from not only the Hurriyat but even “mainstream” parties such as the PDP and the National Conference. There were terrorist threats too.
This time, terrorist attacks have subsided since the elections were called. And the mainstream parties that had boycotted last time have decided to contest in alliance.
Their main plank is the restoration of statehood and the domicile and other special privileges that Jammu and Kashmir had in the past. The state was downgraded to two union territories, with Ladakh separated, on August 5, 2019, when it lost its special status through an act of parliament.
The decision of the “mainstream” parties to contest in unison seems to have set the cat among the pigeons as far as the government is concerned. They entered the arena after the government announced that elections for a new tier of representation would be held simultaneously. The District Development Councils – largely ex officio bodies called District Development Boards when there was an elected state government – are set to be elected from November 29, when the first round of elections will be held to fill vacant panchayat and municipal seats as well.
Some of the new crop of independents and small emergent groups point out that security and accommodation have been provided to several BJP and Apni Party candidates. Many in Kashmir see the Apni Party, headed by former PDP minister Altaf Bukhari, as backed by the central government.
It’s possible the government had hoped that several Apni Party and BJP candidates would get through if the turnout was relatively lean. Some of the new parties and independent candidates certainly thought they had a good chance. Many of them still do. But they are bitter given their impression that the government is batting for not only the BJP but even for the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration, or PAGD, as the coalition of mainstream parties is known.
Sahil Bhat, who heads the newly formed Youth Democratic Party, claims that random surveys show the people are tired of the old politicians. Yet, he says, “we can see that PAGD is being provided an open space for campaigns and adequate security and support”.
PAGD’s head start
Amit Shah has publicly disparaged the PAGD as the “Gupkar gang”. The Gupkar Declaration was the coalition’s vow to get Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and special status restored.
Shah’s disparagement may be driven by dismay at the PAGD’s presumed sweep of all the seats up for grabs in the valley. But the irony of the emerging scenario is that the alliance may not sweep the elections. Many ordinary Kashmiris speak of their disgust for the established politicians. Aamir Sohail Khan of Shopian claims that “people are tired of the same old faces”. Voters seem focused on how these politicians performed in the past, instead of viewing their candidature as a referendum on the scrapping of the special status.
To be sure, the old parties have a head start, since each has a dedicated cadre and the PAGD has distributed seats to whichever alliance partner has the maximum strength in that area.
However, the allies could defeat each other in several places. For longtime voters of the parties that have joined the alliance are often unwilling to back candidates against whom they have campaigned and voted in the past. At least one and up to three rival candidates from within the PAGD alliance have filed nominations for about 85 percent of the district council seats which are being contested in the first phase. There are 28 rebel candidates for the 25 seats in all.
In most cases, the rival candidates are from the same party as the official nominee, perhaps because the seat was allocated to whichever ally had the best chance of winning in that area but there were several claimants to the mandate from within that party.
People familiar with Kashmir’s recent history would recall that partners in the Muslim United Front alliance, which contested the 1987 Assembly election, were set to defeat each other in most of the constituencies in North Kashmir, where Abdul Ghani Lone’s People’s Conference and the Jamaat-e-Islami had both put up rival nominees. But ham-handed rigging of the results in parts of Srinagar and South Kashmir put a cloud over the entire electoral process that year, allowing the MUF to claim that they would have swept the elections.
Although the emergent patterns are different this year, the lack of empathy for independent candidates from those who run the administration might end up defeating the declared objective of allowing new leaders to find a place in the sun. Many of them find themselves squeezed between the devil and the deep sea.
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