By Nazir Masoodi

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Srinagar: It is a ghost election with secret candidates and invisible voters. Even before tomorrow’s first phase of polling for Urban Local Bodies, the BJP has already got seven municipal committees in the Kashmir Valley. The party says its 75 nominees have been elected unopposed. 60 per cent of 600 municipal wards in 10 districts of the Valley have either a single candidate getting elected unopposed or they remain vacant in the absence of any candidate at all.

A view of voters and government forces deployed outside the polling station in Budgam on October 8, 2018. KL photo by Bilal Bahadur.

The civic elections are being boycotted by the National Conference and PDP, the two regional parties who have all along ruled the state, who say the centre is being duplicitous about its stand on the special status promised to J&K. The BJP’s opponent is the Congress, but this party has failed to persuade members to run as candidates in most areas of the Valley. So the elections are largely about the BJP and independent candidates who are largely friendly to it.

This is the first election in India where people don’t know who their candidates are. Election authorities have kept the names of candidates a secret. Publishing details of contesting candidates is mandatory but in the name of security, the state’s Election Commission has done away with it. The website has only the number of candidates who remain faceless.

There are no flags or banners of any party including BJP which is likely to capture most of the municipal committees. No party or candidate has held even a single public meeting to ask people to vote.

The only thing remarkably visible is the overwhelming security being used to conduct these polls. An additional 400 companies (40,000 personnel) of central paramilitary forces have been brought in to assist the existing security set-up in Kashmir. We already have a permanent presence of 60 battalions of the CRPF, an equal number of Rashtriya Rifles units. BSF, ITBP, SSB and over 1 lakh of J&K police force. The only challenge is will the number of votes cross even the half of a number of security personnel deployed for poll duty.

Finding candidates was a huge task for the state government after it announced the civic polls. Some officers are believed to have managed an otherwise impossible task. The government rolled out SOPs including an insurance cover of Rs. 10 lakh for all candidates participating in elections. Government employees who are normally bound to perform election duties are also given an extra month’s salary to attend to poll duty. In this election, everything has a price tag.

Barring a few exceptions, all candidates are hiding and continue to remain faceless. Officials say candidates have been kept in highly-guarded accommodation in Srinagar. The BJP’s only candidate willing to speak on camera is a former militant of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen- Saifullah Farooq from downtown Srinagar. He returned from Pakistan in 2011 as part of the previous government’s rehabilitation policy.

Kashmir’s tryst with democracy has been problematic ever since the state’s accession with the union of India. The Congress is considered responsible for fraud elections and subverting democratic institutions. It was only during non-Congress regimes that the state experienced a better political culture and largely transparent elections. The first election said be free and fair was in 1977 under Morarji Desai’s Janata Party Government.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised another in 2002 from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Since then, elections held in Kashmir have largely been fair, if not entirely free because of civilian unrest, militancy, and militarization.

But that process seems to have been reversed by the present regime. In my earlier blog, I had written how India’s safety valve in Kashmir is in danger after the centre decided to go ahead with local elections despite the decision of the regional parties to sit out the process.

In the 1967 assembly election, the Congress regime tried to demolish the opposition using official machinery. The Deputy Commissioner of Anantnag, Abdul Khaliq, who was the returning officer for south Kashmir, rejected nomination papers of all opposition candidates to ensure that only ruling party candidates won the election. Those elected legislators are still remembered as Khaliq-made MLAs.

Khaliq is an Arabic name which means creator. There are many such Khaliqs in the present system who are creators of our new civic bodies representatives. Some commando bureaucrats and police officials are delivering on the orders of political masters in Delhi. The methods employed may be different but the objective remains the same as 1967. It’s expected that the BJP will rule most of the municipal bodies in Kashmir where it has never been even a marginal player.

It was believed that after the dismal failure of the PDP-BJP government, the centre would try to deliver good governance during Governor’s rule and create a conducive atmosphere for the next parliament and assembly elections. But they seem to be more interested in political one-upmanship. The opposition says this is a sham election and the way it’s being orchestrated is irretrievably damaging the legitimacy of electoral politics. It may well have consequences for future elections if there is no course correction.

Despite its decision to boycott elections, militants killed two National Conference workers in downtown Srinagar on Friday. It was the first attack on political workers after the announcement of civic and panchayat polls. For militants, NC, the grand old party, remains the face of pro-India politics in Kashmir, for which it has repeatedly been targeted.

Vajpayee’s Red Fort promise in 2002 had ensured that separatists boycott politics was eventually defeated through engagement and participative electoral politics.

This election is only vindicating separatists who say this has nothing to do with the people’s will and everything to do with the Centre’s will being imposed on them.

(Nazir Masoodi is NDTV’s Srinagar Bureau Chief. This report appeared on NDTV website first.)


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