A Silent Election

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As Kashmir’s two main political parties stayed away from the polls and the militants are tactically enforcing a boycott, 392 of 624 municipal wards in Kashmir will have no contest. But there are various candidates who are contesting the most challenging local body polls ever, reports Shams Irfan

Relatives mourning over the killing of National Conference worker at Kani Kadal in Srinagar in Srinagar on Friday.
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Among a row of symmetric government quarters in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar locality, the makeshift office of Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) stands out for two reasons: rolls of concertina razor wires guarding its entrance and dozens of armed men deployed outside.

A few party workers who walk in and out of the building wear intense looks as they hit the street. With only a few days left for first phase of Urban Local Bodies (ULB) polls in Srinagar, the overall atmosphere is unlike elections. “We are not allowed to talk to media, especially locals,” said a party worker who refused to give his name.

The “advisory” to stay away from local media seems to stem from the fear of getting exposed. “Most of the contestants have nothing to do with party affiliation or ideology,” said a BJP worker who unsuccessfully contested 2014 state assembly elections from Srinagar on the party mandate. “These people just want to make some quick bucks and nothing else.”

With or without resources, the fact is that the BJP is already sailing ahead in Kashmir valley. The lotus has actually started blooming, almost coinciding with the Lotus harvest in Dal Lake. The Lotus stem had made a complete disappearance from the lake in 2014 floods and this year will mark the first major harvest, almost coinciding with the blooming of the symbol in Kashmir ‘s political space. By now, 72 out of BJPs 270 plus contestants have won unopposed so far.

But unlike a “normal election” where victories are celebrated with pomp and show, these “victories” are only discussed behind the closed doors at party’s make-shift office in Srinagar. Interestingly, the names of contestants are kept as secret and guarded like a treasure. “Imagine an election where a contestant is afraid to even publicly say that he is contesting,” said Nasir Aslam Wani, former Minister of Tourism and Culture in Omar Abdullah government.

Wani believes that people were not ready for an election and the current situation on ground vindicates National Conference’s stand to stay away from the process. “One democratic set-up is demolished to create a new one,” said Wani lamenting the recent killing of two NC workers in Srinagar. “I recall how last Panchayat elections even saw eighty per cent plus polling at some places. But in this election, there is no participation of people at all.”

Municipal Election war 4, 1937.

PDP’s youth leader Waheed Parra says the times are getting interestingly insane. “Fugitives from the law put on their pictures on the social media and get into the woods,” he said. “Those saying they will represent the people are getting underground.”

Though a tense silence is ruling the streets, the security authorities are taking extreme care that the contestants stay safe. Almost in all the district headquarters, the contestants have been kept either in Dak Bungalows or the hotels already hired by the government.

But the comfortable and safe accommodation seems to be exclusively for BJP candidates only. On Thursday, two independent candidates from Srinagar alleged during a roadside press conference that they are not being treated at par with BJP candidates. “They have put 79 independent candidates in a hotel in Srinagar with just eight policemen to guard the premises,” said one of the disgruntled candidates. “What if the hotel is attacked? How can just eight men guard us all?”

The same fear is visible in entire south Kashmir where most of the election process will be a non-show.

Fear in south

In the run-up to Panchayat and municipal elections over 142 militants were killed in encounters between January and August 2018, most of them in south Kashmir.

During the same period 68 civilians were killed in firing by counter-insurgent forces during protests. A number of civilian killings particularly in Hawoora and Ganowpora, in Kulgam and Shopian districts have added to the anger on the ground. “How can you expect people to participate in elections when civilians are being killed every day?” asks a local BJP worker from south Kashmir who stayed away from the process.

In Islamabad’s Ashmuqam village, four out of nine BJP contestants withdrew their papers after the list of their names and phone numbers got leaked online. “They felt threatened that is why they withdrew,” said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, media in-charge BJP. “But let me assure you, all our candidates are already accommodated in secure locations in Srinagar.”

On October 3, 2018, the names of 30 contestants from Dooru Veerinag Municipal Committee were leaked online on social media accounts associated with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The next day, one of the contestants, whose name figured in the list, announced her resignation “from all activities” in a video circulated online. Out of thirty names 13 belonged to BJP candidates and 17 to Congress.

All the candidates were immediately moved to Dooru police station where they are kept under protective custody. “They are not allowed to go home given the threat to their lives,” said a local BJP worker.

After the online leak there is visible fear among contestants as several audio and video warnings allegedly by militants were issued in the run up to polls. It was reinforced by a sensational political killing of two NC workers in the congested Karfali Mohalla in Srinagar. Though NC is not contesting the polls and, possibly, neither of the two slain men were part of the contest, the killings have added to the scare. NC has sought investigations in the twin murders that are unclaimed till this report was filed.

As the security blanket was expanded and enforced, now movement even in Srinagar is getting difficult during odd hours. Paramilitary men deployed on street management duty are clicking photographs of the commuters during late night. But the most serious warning came from the militants who are using all means to add to the scare.

Uncontested Contest

On October 1, after the nominations for all four phases of Municipal elections ended, it was revealed that out of 624 wards in Kashmir 215 wards have gone uncontested, where there was only one contestant who won for lack of opposition. Interestingly, there are 177 wards from where no candidate filed nomination.

In contrast in Jammu region, out of 534 wards only 13 go uncontested. There is not even a single ward from where nominations were not filed.

Given the situation in Kashmir election will be held on only 232 wards for which 715 candidates are in fray.

As the data revealed by Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), there will be no election in three South Kashmir districts of Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam, as not even a single contestant has filed nomination. Out of 17 wards in Shopian Municipal Committee, 13 have already won uncontested while remaining four have no candidate. The same situations prevails in Pulwama’s Tral Municipal Committee, where out of 13 wards four went uncontested and remaining nine have no contestant at all. In neighbouring Awantipora town, out of 13 wards two were won uncontested, while 11 had no contestant. In saffron town Pampore, out of 17 wards, five went uncontested and 12 find no contestant. The situation in nearby Khrew town, which saw one of the highest voters turn-out in 2014 assembly elections, all 13 wards remained vacant.

Deep South in Kulgam Municipal Committee out of 13 wards only five found single unopposed candidates while remaining eight have none.

But the most interesting case is of Frisal Municipal Committee, where four militants and two civilians were killed during an encounter in July this year; no one has filed nomination for its 13 wards.

In former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s hometown Bijbehara, out of 17 wards five were won unopposed while 12 wards have not even a single candidate.

In north Kashmir, the situation is slightly better as only two wards in Kupwara Municipal Committee have gone uncontested, while 29 candidates are fighting for remaining 11 wards. In Langate Municipal Committee situation is slightly sketchy as out of 13 wards, nine will go uncontested while two remain vacant and rest have four contestants.

The ULB candidates of BJP in a party function in Srinagar.

With both NC and PDP officially boycotting the elections it is the BJP who has won most of the unopposed seats.

“This will help us (BJP) make our presence felt at the grass-root level where it matters the most,” said a BJP worker.

KPs are back

Interestingly, with both NC and PDP staying away, the field is left vacant for new faces to take over. The vacuum left by these regional parties has given chance to Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) to contest from their native places and win. Out of over 250 candidates fielded by BJP, around 20 are KPs, who live in Jammu. “For the first migrant votes will be considered in these elections so that is why we have fielded them,” said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, BJP’s media in-charge. “These KPs are right now campaigning in the Jammu region for migrant votes.”

The maximum numbers of KPs are fielded in Srinagar by the BJP. “We have around six contestants in Srinagar only,” said Bhat. “Also, party has fielded its senior workers from strategic wards keeping in view the after election scenario.”

Maznoor himself is contesting but refused to reveal from where.

But for BJP candidates who have fought earlier elections, both state assembly and general elections, on party’s ticket from Kashmir, the open entry of people in these elections have created a mess. “We all know that these elections are just an exercise and nothing else,” admitted a BJP worker who refused to give his name for security reasons.

Meanwhile, in BJP’s Srinagar office a deafening silence falls over the edifice as day turns into night.

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