Elections, Again

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At a time when Kashmir’s entire political class is restricted to homes or jails in wake of abrogation of special status and undoing of Jammu and Kashmir as a state, the governor’s administration has announced elections for the second tier of the Panchayat Raj system in the state. This has raised more questions, reports Masood Hussain

With Kashmir’s political class reduced to “house guests”, provided with “CDs of Hollywood movies” and offered “bread of their choices”, in the Hotel Corporation of India owned 5-star Centaur Lakeview Hotel in Srinagar for over two months now, the government announced the Block Development Council (BDC) elections. Slated for October 24, the exercise is aimed at electing chairpersons for Jammu and Kashmir’s 310 BDCs – 168 of them in Kashmir. Unlike Panchayats’, this election is supposed to be on party basis.

Ideally, it is the easiest election that Kashmir can ever have. The entire electorate – elected Panchs and Sarpanchs – are living in five hugely guarded hotels in Srinagar within a radius of two sqkms, for the last more than nine months. The number is so thin that one can have a one-on-one meeting with almost everybody. Given the Kashmir situation, however, they are unlikely to be disturbed as the entire political class is in jail. The absence of NC and PDP – the main stakeholders of Kashmir mandate till August 5 – may eventually encourage these chosen people to have the BDC bosses within their own flock.

The BDC polls would be the second milestone in creating the Panchayat Raj System in Jammu and Kashmir, a state downgraded to a Union Territory (UT) in August. Of the three tiers of this grassroots development set-up, the elections to the basic tier – the Panchayats, was the 9-phase crucial exercise that concluded in December 2018. This “bloodless” exercise was the key highlight in pre-August Kashmir.

In 3652 Panchayats across Jammu and Kashmir, electors voted twice to elect a Sarpanch, the head of the Panchayat, and a Panch of their respective village, ward or the Mohalla. A total of 23629 panchs were elected. Jammu and Ladakh (now a separate UT) provinces witnessed a better participation unlike Kashmir.

Kashmir (including Ladakh) has 2135 Panchayats. In 708 Panchayats there was no candidate at all. In 699 Panchayats, there was one candidate each, who won uncontested.

Every Panchayats has number of panchs as per demography and varies from five to even 10. There were 18,833 panch berths in all these Panchayats. There was no candidate available at any of the 11237 berths and are vacant. The remaining 7596 berths were filled by elections, almost 3500 of them without a contest.

Even after getting such a large number of people elected through a sham process with history’s lowest participation, the government faced another issue. The law recommends that the elected Panchs and Sarpanchs are to be notified and once that happens, the Panchayat shall be “deemed to be duly constituted”. But the Panchayats having less than one-third of its total members elected cannot be notified so these Panchayats are still not constituted.

This is the main reason why only 7308 Panchs of a total of 7,596 elected Panch have been notified. Though there are 1558 elected Sarpanchs, only 1311 are notified. Despite being elected the Rural Department has not notified 247 Sarpanchs and 288 Panchs. The fact is that 45 per cent Panchayats in Kashmir are vacant. Now the Rural Development Department has appointed officers to exercise control over these vacant Panchayats.

Panchs and Sarpanchs jointly make the electoral college for the BDC polls. Ever since they were elected, most of them are housed in five major hotels in Srinagar, including the one exclusively for the Kashmir Pandits, who won unopposed from South Kashmir where the Panchayat polls were boycotted. In last more than nine months of their secured stay in Srinagar, 33 of them died.

On September 28,Shalendra Kumar, Jammu and Kashmir’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) announced October 24, as the polling day for BDC polls. Jammu and Kashmir (Ladakh included) has 310 blocks (BDCs) of which 172 stand reserved for Schedule Caste, Schedule Tribe and Women. As many as 168 BDCs fall in Kashmir.

Kumar said as many as 26,629 electors (8313 of them female) will cast their votes till 1 pm and the counting will start soon after. The results will be out, the same day. “It is a small electoral process,” the CEO said. “(Only) they (sarpanchs and panchs) are going to vote.”

But how can a government hold polls when 45 per cent of Kashmir Panchayats lack a vote in the process as they do not have any representative?

“If we go for elections for vacant seats, then we have to prepare an electoral roll afresh,” Kumar told reporters. “There must be two per cent new voters. Unless they are there, we can’t have fresh elections for the vacant seats.”

Kumar was asked about the exercise at a time when Kashmir is still not out of the August 5 shock, communication blockade is still in vogue and the entire political class is in jail. He said when the political parties approach him seeking facilitation; he will take a call, accordingly. A report said the politicians in Jammu region who were in house custody have been set free in anticipation of the BDC polls. One of Governor’s advisers said they will be setting free all the political workers in a phased manner. “Yes, one by one, after analysis of every individual, they will be released,” Farooq Khan told reporters in Jammu.

Urgency for BDC polls was enigmatic. But Kumar had the explanation: “At the block level, many development works have stopped and are not moving ahead.”

Interestingly, it was the same justification that the governor’s administration offered for the Panchayat and the Urban Local Body polls in the 2018 summer. Chief Secretary BRV Subrahmanyam told media that the state was unable to access a substantial corpus of funds awarded by the Fourteenth Finance Commission for lack of Panchayat set-up. With Panchayats having elected and notified bodies, what has been the net outcome?

Sheetal Nanda, Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development told reporters that of Rs 3,000 crore from the FC award, they have already released Rs 1,300 crore to the Panchayats.

The system for spending this money is different. These funds go to bank accounts – to be jointly managed by the Sarpanch and the Panchayat Secretary, a government official, and for every scheme there has to be separate bank account. As the Panchayat processes the proposal of works, it is approved and vetted by a chain of officers, it eventually will be allotted and at that time the funds will be disbursed to the concerned.

So far, nothing much has happened, at least in Kashmir. There are cases in which the Sarpanchs have been able to open bank accounts and there are cases where some funds have landed. But in overwhelming number of cases, they have not been able to spend anything. Nanda told reporters that the LokSabha elections delayed certain things but her department was evaluating the quantum of work that has taken place.

Panchs and Sarpanchs told reporters that they are restricted to their hotel accommodations, mostly along with their families. The Indian Express quoted one Sarpanch saying that they visit the line officer once a week and usually he is not in his office that day. Another was quoted saying that though some of his proposals stand approved, he requires security to follow-up. None of the Sarpanchs is willing to leave Srinagar and chase their jobs in areas, they were elected from. They all require security for movement. Apart from a secured and free accommodation, the government pays Rs 2500, a month for a Sarpanch and Rs 1000 to a Panch.

A general perception in the Rural Development Department is that almost 10 percent of the available funds might have been utilised. But nobody is sure.

While this lot of “grassroots representatives” have not been able to contribute to the new development story, they continue to symbolise the Alaadin for almost everything between Delhi and Srinagar. While Prime Minister Modi has spoken more about their importance in 2019 than the recent undoing of Jammu and Kashmir, they are being increasingly seen as the solution to Kashmir’s every problem from separatism to the dynastic rule. Home Minister Amit Shah recently indicated to a delegation of Panchs and sarpanchs that the new Chief Minister of the soon-to-be UT of Jammu and Kashmir could be from the delegation itself! This, he said, while extending an insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh to these representatives who are facing an severe security threat, especially after the undoing of Jammu and Kashmir.

PM Modi meets newly elected Sarpanches of J&K on December 19, 2018.

Now these “representatives” are being encouraged to elect the BDC polls. Most of them are happy to do that as long as they get adequate security to reach the polling station. Seemingly, the idea is to get them control an institution that is flush with funds and has mass public dealing. While they all were elected on non-party basis, they will now elect the BDCs on party basis.

This is apparently the key reason, why the opposition – mostly in jail, have alleged that the central government is thrusting its choices on Jammu and Kashmir.

“They (Delhi) want to thrust the BJP on the state, on people’s heads, it is their policy. They want to control the system,” Congress’s state president G A Mir told The Telegraph. “Their design is to hold selection in the name of election and lie before the country that 95 per cent people in state are with them – to tell people that people here are Modibhakts and are endorsing his decisions.” The newspaper said the governor’s administration tweaked the rules so that the BJP has an edge.

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