Decimal Divide

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Municipal elections have offered decimal statistics of democracy currently in vogue in Kashmir. The black and white map offers a clear view of the state of indifference, defiance and alienation. Areas with better participation suggested the local politics is yet not irrelevant at all. But the larger question is how the political parties and the Raj Bhawan will move ahead towards the assembly elections, anticipated next spring, reports Masood Hussain

Security men standing guard near a polling station in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Every new election in Kashmir has remained a new experiment in the systems and the processes. But the ongoing Municipal polls that have been completed in half of the four phases are distinct in more ways than all earlier ones.

Firstly, no major stakeholder participated in the exercise. For their own reasons, National Conference (NC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), CPI (M), Hakeem Yasin and Engineer Abdul Rasheed decided not to participate. They, however, did not ask people for a boycott, as has remained the case with the separatists. This encouraged some of the party workers – Junaid Mattoo in NC and Fayaz Mir’s brother, to resign from their parties and contest independently.

Secondly, the separatists, avowedly against the polls, appealed for the boycott. They did not lead anti-poll campaigns because the top leaders were either restricted to their homes or were in custody. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, however, did make a mention of polls and asked for the boycott from the pulpit of the Jamia Masjid.

Thirdly, militants were fiercely against the polls and had threatened of serious consequences for the participants. Two NC workers, both former militants, were killed in one hit-and-run attack in the heart of Srinagar. None of the slain duos was contesting the ongoing polls. Barring these political killing, there was no major attack anywhere in the two phases so far. The tension and scare were in the air but there was no violence. There were instances of stone pelting and alleged inconsequential petrol bombs attacks.

Polling staff deployed for phase-2 polls in Fateh Kadal marriage hall on plastic mats that police supplied to them Wednesday morning after they killed the night hungry and talking to each other. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Fourth, the administration managed almost 40,000 additional paramilitary men as reinforcement to the already huge security grid. On basis of this strength, the government could manage to reach all places where it wanted to. It set up booths and ensured everything that was required. But it did not compel people to vote. The administration offered such an impressive security cover to the candidates that nobody saw them or even got their names.

Fifth, the contesting parties had their own problems in pitching candidates. In certain areas, they had no candidate at all – in certain cases, even against the offer of good financial support as well. At places, the contestants entered into informal relationships at the nomination level which created a situation that one candidate nominated for one ward and had no opponent. They were declared winners without a contest thus bypassing the polling, the most crucial part of the entire exercise.

Sixth, perhaps for the first time, the BJP put to use its social engineering intelligently in Kashmir. It encouraged various Kashmiri Pandits to get nominated and they led campaigns in the migrant camps. While most of them were declared winners, those who contested will get elected because of migrant votes.

Seventh, areas where the local political forces participated, as in case of Kupwara, Handwara and Sumbal, the voter population exhibited a clear difference in comparison to the rest of the electoral space where political forces were absent.

Eighth, the majority of the voter population exhibited a proverbial indifference towards the exercise. The second phase witnessed less than half of the first phase polling. There were more wards lacking polling for the lack of candidates or the contest.

Ninth, majority community populations in Pir Panchal range and Chenab Valley participated in the elections in hoards. In fact, the Kashmir based political parties had fielded candidates in individual capacities and that was an additional factor in improving the voter turnout.

Tenth, the exercise, despite all odds, challenges and limitations will successfully add a new layer of stakeholders to the political space of the state. Some of them who were living on the margins of the politics may now be encouraged enough to get to the next level thus creating a new rat race within the political sphere of Kashmir. The fight over home turf has the possibility of shooting up political activity in coming days.

In the first phase, when the state had a cumulative participation of 56.7 per cent, Kashmir polled 8.3 per cent where slightly more than seven thousand people participated. A day later, in the second phase of Jammu division, 78.6 per cent polling was witnessed and Kashmir division witnessed average 3.4 per cent.

Two young men carry an aged voter to the polling station in Sumbal on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“These elections are so distinct that I am seeing it for the first time,” NC leader Ali Mohammad Sagar said. “I have never heard of three per cent participation, never of a situation in which two-thirds are either vacant or won uncontested. I have never heard that a voter is asked to vote for a candidate he has never seen or heard of.

“I think, we may require some experts to study why BJP has won in the most militancy-infested areas like Sopore, Shopian, Pampore, Kulgam, Frisal, Devsar and other areas,” Sagar said. “I told even the governor Satya Pal Malik about this and he said the decision about the elections was taken by his predecessor.”

Sagar said it gives him goose-bumps to think about the names of the candidates being kept secret. “It added a new ridicule to the electoral process when the government announced that the people can vote at 6 am, half an hour before the sunrise,” Sagar said. “In my constituency, there was a young man whom police took with them to ensure his security and he was shouting that he was not a candidate but police were telling him he was, and that he was from Congress and it was telecast on TV.”

“Nobody is talking about this but the fact is this exercise has literally obliterated the mainstream which was India’s only achievement in last 70 years,” PDP leader Naeem Akhter said. “This time militants had nothing to do for enforcing boycott as the mainstream and separatists were on the same page.”

He said the “sustained efforts by Delhi at demolishing the mainstream” have created a situation that the pro-India politics has “lost a big battle in a long fight. ” BJP led Delhi, he insisted, neither kept the promise nor lived up to the basic expectations of the Kashmir’s mainstream.

Jubilations and massive participation in Jammu and Ladakh apart, the exercise gave stunning figures in Kashmir. If the policymakers knew, this was bound to happen, why was not the ‘cooling period’ extended?

“Nobody could answer the question – why elections at such a time when there is uncertainty, violence and clear peoples’ indifference,” Communist lawmaker Yousuf Tarigami said. “How could people’s empowerment take place without people?” He sees the ongoing exercise as the “one that was thrust upon” people.

Tarigami said he had been seeking some confidence-building measures even from the day when there was an elected government but nothing was done. “I believe BJP resorted to arrogance and even refused to defend the constitution by not coming to the Supreme Court and making its position clear on Article 35A.”

Funeral of a National Conference worker , who alongwith another party worker was killed. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“BJP is underestimating the undercurrents,” Tarigami believes. “While the governor has said nothing changes on Article 370, Mohan Bagwat says they will ensure it goes, so whom we should believe. BJP, after all, is the political arm of the RSS.”

There are interesting arguments in its favour. “The government says, they had no options because the Prime Minister announced the polls from the Red Fort,” one senior NC leader said. “Nobody understands the fact that when the Prime Minister of the country announces local body polls, which were rarely so important, the situation must be very bad.”

BJP was keen to have these polls from day one. But officials associated with the exercise suggest that the pressing issue for the administration was to resort to some exercise to break the lull in the political space. The governor Satya Pal Malik, being a political governor, was tasked to get into the politics of the place and trigger some turnaround. He has already started talking and has already laded in one controversy. Raj Bhawan clarification took the same controversy to another level. But will his talking do the wonders when Parivaar voice remains unchanged on Kashmir and an interlocutor without a mandate goes on meeting officials?

“We suggested the governor that the Raj Bhawan should not become the sub-office of the BJP,” Sagar, who was part of a meeting with Malik, said. “We are keen the Raj Bhawan stays neutral on politics of the state.”

Right now, there is no possibility of a government in the state even though the state assembly is in a suspended animation. Even governor Malik has ruled it out. The indications suggest that the state is actually moving towards fresh elections by spring 2019, most possibly coinciding with the Lok Sabha polls.

One senior politician said that the next move depends on what happens in the Panchayat and Urban Local Body polls in Jammu. “If BJP wins to its satisfaction, we must get ready for the polls,” the politician said. “If they lose, just get ready for a new government that can run havoc with the politics of the place.”

Some political beings are keen to avail that opportunity. These include most of the BJP and certain sections of the earlier dispensations as well.

There is yet another exercise still around – the Panchayat elections. These may not be deadly but they will exhibit the trend that is already in vogue in Kashmir. “Towns are still big spaces,” Abdul Qayoom, a journalist said. “Villages are small habitations where quite a few people live and everybody knows everybody.”

Unlike the candidates in the municipalities, the numbers will be enormous, in tens of thousands. It is easy to manage the candidates in the town by hiring hotels but there are no such spaces in the villages. Indifference might be the typical urban and sub-urban phenomenon; defiance has emerged as the main hallmark in the rural periphery.

This, however, does not mean that politicians will stop politics and the state will perpetually be ruled remotely. The state will have to go for elections, sooner than later. But how will the administration and the political parties move ahead?

To an extent, the political parties are privately vindicating the governor who said they are unhappy with the decision of staying away from polls. One political leader said the situation is very bad but “we should not have been out of the process”. They are now being ridiculed by those who participated and some of them are running the risk of slipper home turf.

“I wish we come up,” Akhter said. “To be honest, people also have started understanding the crucial importance of the mainstream. Now it is coming to their homes at the ward level. Now the system is delivering them representatives without an election.”

Talking off the record, one political worker said, the NC and BJP will take almost a decade in neutralising the impact of this “sham” exercise. “It will have long-term consequences,” he said.

“It is not a good turn in our history,” another politician admitted but insisted he is speaking anonymously. “There have been pygmies replacing the leaders and then the little men surrendering to the people power.” He explained the similar transitions in history first in 1953 and then in 1975.

Article 35A, every party says is going to be crucial. In fact, the next political battle will be fought in the state on this section of the Constitution of India. “They fiddle with it and Kashmir will be on fire and they support it, it gives a space to bounce back,” one politician admitted. “The government of India should not have left it to the street. They should have defended the constitution in the Supreme Court or simply admitted that the case must wait for the elected government in the state.”

“Governor told us that the state has a separate constitution and a flag and I said both the symbols of our identity have been reduced to a shell,” Sagar said. “Delhi will have to talk and negotiate on the special position we had. There are people dying in the state. These sham elections will not help.”

Tarigami said the mainstream parties have not boycotted the exercise. “We have stayed away because we have issues and these concern the common man,” the Communist lawmaker said. “Kindly understand these sham elections cannot destroy the politics of the place, it only increased tensions and the crisis.” The Communist leader said the politics in Kashmir is not against the idea of democracy. “It is against the subversion of it,” he insisted. “Sham exercise like these elections cannot kill the genuine politics of the state.”

It will take its own time, however, to finally decide which direction the politics will take. Till then, the governor’s administration will continue ruling the state. Technically, the administration is working on three fronts without less noise and better focus.

Jammu came out in huge numbers to participate in the first phase of municipal elections across the state. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Development continues to be the focus of the administration right now. Without initiating any new projects, the administration under Chief Secretary BVR Sumbramaniyam has identified all the languishing projects and created a new line of debt-funding. “We have a project hanging since 1979,” Farooq Ahmad Shah, Secretary Irrigation and Flood Control said. “It was supposed to cost Rs 6.50 crore and so for Rs 123 crore was spent and is yet to be complete. Now under the new scheme, we will be investing a final Rs 23 crore and finish it in a few months.”

This developmental deficit is officially attributed to the lopsided developmental policies of the political government and already a few thousand such projects have been identified for early completion. Once these projects are ready, the political parties will have to face the question: ‘If the governor’s government can deliver, why could not you?’

So far, the governor’s administration is offering no idea about how to manage alienation at ground zero. However, it is expected to get harsh with the militancy in coming days. With a new police chief in the state, the mortalities are expected to surge once the mountains are under snow and passes straddling the Line of Control (LoC) get blocked. The gunning down of the Hizb ul Mujahideen’s ideologue-militant Manan Wani is already a major dent to the rebel camp.

Seemingly, the unidentified gunmen have already made a return. In Shopian a Hurriyat activist was killed and police attributed it to “terrorists”. Later, militants came and gave him a gun salute at the funeral.

But the most challenging sphere of activity for the governor’s administration is going to be the politics of the place. A talking governor may make to the front pages but what about the real politics? Daneshwar Sharma has been there for more than a year now. Apart from having interactions with the political beings, sportspersons and attempting meeting people in the periphery, he has not been able to do anything – probably because of his lack of mandate.

The Government of India has already made it clear that it is unwilling to talk with its neighbour. This is obviously because the BJP government is facing an election at a time when nothing much is in the basket to sell. This will have more focus on Kashmir because this, like past, is the only evolving ‘story’ of success and the failures; possibilities and hope. This paints a very grim picture of the events that may unfold in coming days.

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