Customized Democracy?

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Ahead of the first phase of DDC polls, the PAGD ‘gang’ alleged that most of its contesting candidates are being driven to secured accommodation for security preventing them from campaigning. But this is not the only ‘strange and unique feature’ of the first post-2019 election in Jammu and Kashmir, reports Tasavur Mushtaq

BJP leader and Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi addressing a public meeting during campaigning for District Development Council polls, at Kupwara in Kashmir on November 19, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“Candidates put up by the PAGD are immediately whisked away to “secure locations” in the name of security and confined to those “secure locations”. They are not allowed to canvass, they are completely out of touch with those from whom they are supposed to seek votes,” Dr Farooq Abdullah, the head of the Peoples’ Alliance on Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) wrote a letter to Jammu and Kashmir’s State Election Commissioner, K K Shamra. “The current state of affairs in the realm of security is blatantly oriented towards providing security to a select few and confining others. This comes across more as an attempt to interfere in the democratic process than any real concern for the wellbeing of the contestants.”

A Letter

The letter was sent barely a week ahead of the first of the 8-phase polls scheduled on November 29. Conveying in too many words that the evolution of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir has been “a bloodied journey – soaked in the blood of thousands of workers”, Dr Abdullah has insisted: “It is a desecration of those sacrifices when the very conflict that consumed their lives is used as an alibi to customize democracy.”

PAGD members being greeted by the Gujjar leaders in Jammu.

However, it is the “strange and unique feature” that Dr Abdullah has mentioned in his letter that fits in Kashmir’s Jumhooriyat debate. The democracy in Kashmir has been a persistent slogan that found strange manifestations to exhibit itself. In fact, all the elections in Jammu and Kashmir had this “strange and unique feature”. What makes things awkwardly interesting this time, however, is that there is a wedge between the central government – the real powerhouse, and the parties that represented it in Kashmir, till date. The central government is keen to do things directly in Kashmir bypassing the local stake-holding in political space.

Customised Democracy

In this “customised democracy”, as PAGD sees these elections, the police are extending security cover to the candidate right at the moment he or she files the nomination. The security is being extended by physically removing them to security clusters where they are being fed and prevented from moving out. Once in, there is no possibility of them moving out because the security apparatus says they are the potential targets of the militants. Ideally, they should have been given the security so that they can move and interact with the people.

Ulfat, a lawyer, who is contesting DDC poll from Ramhal (Kupwara) as a PAGD candidate. Photo: Facebook

In every district, the authorities have set up a secured accommodation available for them. A number of videos were making rounds on social media shows people from these spaces appealing they be permitted to move out. PAGD says that the BJP candidates are the only participants in these polls enabled by the system to move around. All others, one senior leader said, are “prisoners”. Candidates from most of south Kashmir have been removed to the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Pampore. “It has been converted into a political entrepreneurship start-up where a candidate enters with one party badge and is upgraded to another party,” one political worker alleged.

PAGD Rally in rural Doda after Aasim Hashmi filed his nomination papers on Monday, November 23, 2020

This could be the reason why BJP top leaders like Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain were very visible and audible in Srinagar in comparison to an invisible PAGD, dubbed by the rightwing party as a “gang”. More than elections, it is a game of perceptions. But elections to the de-politicised DDCs will still have to take place. This is the first electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir after the Article 370 was read down, already hollowed special status was withdrawn and protections to the key identities were binned.

Denying Space

Some people in Srinagar believe that since PAGD had taken a stand against the August 5, 2019 decision-making, the BJP was under an impression that the alliance partners – National Conference (NC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peoples Conference (PC), CPI (M) and others in this fold will not participate. This thought process was not in conflict with the mood on the ground that was not very supportive of voting. People in Kashmir are habitual of boycotting polls and this primarily separatist-tool eventually emerged a tactical instrument with the ruling government in Srinagar. Had the situation followed the script, BJP and it alleged creation, the Apni Party, would have swept the polls in Kashmir.

A cartoon by Kashmir’s legendary cartoonist BAB saying the PADG would fight for 370, then will fight elections and will eventually fight within.

This had happened last time. In the municipal elections conducted in the fall of 2018, NC and PDP stayed away. Both regretted their decision, later. While in Panchayat polls thousands of berths remained vacant as nobody came forward with a nomination. In the urban local body polls, BJP won 100 of the 624 municipal ward berths (76 of them unopposed and uncontested). In fact, 185 wards did not see any election because no nomination came, not even from BJP. It actually controls most of the south Kashmir municipalities.

In the subsequent, Block Development Council (BDC) elections in which the elected members of the Panchayats and municipal bodies are the voters, BJP performed better: of 307 blocks across Jammu and Kashmir, 81 are with BJP, mostly in Jammu.

Gradually the NC and PDP came to the conclusion that staying away from these exercises means conceding the space to the new politics that BJP is so keen to set up in Jammu and Kashmir. In the follow up to the decision, they decided to field candidates from the alliance.

In Kashmir, the campaigning is mostly a visibly restricted activity. In this photograph, Mehbooba Mufti is seen talking to a candidate at her residence in south Kashmir.

Birth Defects

PAGD was facing a crisis from its birth. There were voices within the alliance that they should restrict it to the regional parties and avoid getting the national parties because the latter has wider constituencies. Some voices even strongly suggested that Congress has not been very different from BJP in hollowing the special status; it was tactical and less brutal, however. The top leaders agreed thinking that even though the opposition in India was subdued in its reaction to Kashmir happenings, it still was there.

Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad prevented Dr Farooq Abdullah’s fall on the stairs on March 14, 2020, when the two leaders came out of the meeting in Srinagar.

After formally being part of it, Congress stayed away. Initially, it was being said that the PAGD willingly granted the leave to the party in wake of the Bihar elections. Many weeks after the Patna debacle, when the Home Minister Amit Shah fired the “Gupkar Gang” missile, there were tensions in the Congress. Eventually, it dissociated itself from the PAGD. The announcement came from Delhi.

By then, however, the PAGD had given the mandate to various Congressmen including some of the close relatives of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress Chief, G A Mir. It remains to be seen if the winning Congressmen would eventually like to be counted with the PAGD?

Tensions Within

Regardless of how the PAGD honchos take their participation in the DDC polls, the political worker at ground zero takes it differently. The two parties – NC and PDP, have remained as the main two poetical forces at ground zero for last many years, it is very difficult to mend this fence, right away. It has already started showing.

Muzaffar Hussain Baig and his wife, Safina Beig

This seat-sharing led to the quitting of Muzaffar Hussain Beig from the PDP. He was expecting his wife, Safina, to contest from a women-reserve seat that PAGD gave to NC.

In Budgam, Nazir Khan, a PDP leader, filed his nomination papers as an independent candidate against the official PAGD candidate. He alleged that initially he was given the mandate but hours before he would file the nomination, the mandate was given to NC.

NC ledger Ajay Sadhotra campaigning in border Chakrali village in Mard. KL Image Special Arrangement

In Kulgam, CPI (M) leader Yousuf Tarigami resented PDP getting a mandate from Pombay where his party is firmly in control. Now his party is fighting against the PAGD candidate.

“It has been a problem,” admitted one PAGD leader. “We should have permitted all to contest and still results would have been the same.” He said it is very difficult at ground zero to manage the age-old divide between the two parties and then there are individual ambitions involved. “We are facing a challenge because we are in a contest with a party that has both money and power and is abusing both of them.” The leader said that even if the PAGD candidates at few places loss, those who will win will also be from some PAGD constituent but it has “added up to confusion”.

Insiders in PAGD said despite all these problems they are facing they will still get more than 100 of the 140 berths in Kashmir.

In Jammu

The Congress’s distancing from the PAGD was the key factor that dented the PAGD show in Jammu but the alliance sees better returns. “The BJP is feeling weak as they are unable to say anything other than that NC is a Pakistani party,” one PAGD leader from Jammu said. “The people seem to have understood the fact that the party has devoured their rights and that is making BJP sleepless.”

BJP leader Syed Shahnawaz Hussain
addressing a press conference in Srinagar on Friday, November 20, 2020.

In Jammu, the systems are slightly different. While BJP is fielding candidates everywhere, the Panthers Party is restricted to its area of influences around Udhampur. NC, Congress and PDP have restricted themselves to core areas they have influence in. “Anti-BJP forces will eventually be the winners,” one leader said. “But this is a fact that all parties are actually contesting separately.”  The leader did admit that in Jammu’s Muslim belts a lot of social engineering is at play.

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