by Masood Hussain
SRINAGAR: On the eve of first of the four-phase polling for municipal elections across the state, Kashmir is calm, busy but tense. Well before the sunset, the roads got deserted quickly and the ubiquitous paramilitary and policemen took over the streets and roads. Drop gates at all crossings emerged. This is a routine for the last many days.
With the arrival of almost 400 additional companies of the paramilitary to help the governor led the state government to hold the municipal polls, the security grid is populous enough to keep watch on almost everything across Kashmir. Lt Gen A K Bhatt, the Commander of the Srinagar based 15 corps said that Kashmir has almost 300 active militants as 250 are waiting on the Line of Control to crossover.
“We have just three wards in Srinagar to witness polls on Monday,” one senior police officer said. “These are expected to be well-contested wards of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation.” Srinagar has 74 wards and there is only one ward that did not see any nomination. “We have 310 candidates for 73 wards and managing them is a heady task. They are from all political parties including those on the official boycott.”
On Monday, three wards – Humhama, Bagh-e-Mehtab and Hamdaniya Colony will go to polls. There are eight candidates in fray for three wards and the government has set up 35 polling sytations.
Srinagar was calm and apparently safe for the candidates, most of whom have been secured in clusters within the hotels that the government has already hired. There has not been any campaign, not at least, visibly. But the tensions were up after the unidentified gunmen killed two political workers and left one injured in Karfalli Mohalla in Srinagar. Neither of the two slain young men was contesting the municipal polls and were close to the National Conference lawmaker Shameema Firdous. No militant outfit has staked the claim for the killings, so far.
“Both the slain political workers were militants who were arrested and set free later. They had joined politics after their stint as militants,” one police officer said on the condition that he would stay anonymous. “We are investigating but this is what it is.”
Other areas that will go to polls in the first phase include Kupwara, Handwara, Bandipore, Baramulla, Budgam, Chadoora, Khan Sahab, Kulgam, Devsar, Achabal, Kokernag, Qazigund, Kargil and Leh.
But all these places have not a real contest. Some of the towns will not witness any kind of electoral exercise at all because either there are no nominations or the single candidate was declared a winner in absence of an opponent.
The total number of wards that will go to polls on Monday is 142. Of them, 24 are vacant for lack of any nomination, 68 have already been won because the candidates had no opposition at all. In the remaining 50, there is a contest. All these wards are in Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipore. Officials, however, said 57 municipal sats witnessing contest between 138 candidates as 78 have already won unopposed.
Kulgam Municipality has 13 wards. On nine wards, there was no nomination at all hence they are vacant. In the remaining four, there was one candidate each, so they are automatically declared winners. Two of them are from BJP, a couple.
Devsar local body has eight wards. There, eight nominations have come for these wards, one each for each ward. Since there is no contest, there is no requirement of an election at all.
Qazigund, another Kulgam local body, has seven wards. On three wards, no form of any nomination has come. For the remaining four, the officials have received one candidate each thus making them winners without any contest.
Budgam has an interesting situation. Of its 13 municipal wards, only one seat is going to witness a contest. For three seats nobody came with a nomination form so they will remain vacant. In nine wards, there was one applicant each thus making them victorious.
Chadoora Municipality in Budgam district has 13 wards. There has not been any nomination for five wards and for remaining eight wards, eight candidates have filed papers and were declared elected unopposed. Hence, no requirement of an election.
In Khansahib Municipality – also falling in the Budgam, there are seven wards. There were seven applications for one nomination each in every ward so automatically they were declared winners without any opposition. No elections required.
Achabal (Anantnag) has eight wards. Officials said they have not received any nomination for three wards. Five candidates who have submitted their papers for the five wards were declared victorious, unopposed. This town will also not require an election.
Kokernag Municipality has 13 wards and eight of them have gone uncontested while there was no nomination to one ward. This leaves four wards where eight candidates will fight it out on Monday.
Most of the areas that would witness a contest are in north Kashmir. Chief Secretary BVR Subramanyam visited Kupwara and Bandipore on the eve of polls.
The north Kashmir Baramulla town has a 21-ward municipality. All wards have nominations. However, in six wards do not require any contest at all because they were already won by single candidates in absence of any opponent. But town’s 15 wards will have a keen contest.
Kupwara district, however, would witness a keen contest. In its 13 wards, two seats stand elected unopposed leaving 11 berths of the municipality to 29 candidates in the fray.
Handwara, which falls in the same district, has 13 wards. Of them, six candidates for six berths have elected unopposed. This leaves seven seats on which as many as 18 candidates are contesting.
Chief Secretary, BVR Subrahmanyam visited the border district and undertook a detailed review of the preparedness for smooth, free and fair elections. An official spokesman said DC Kupwara Khalid Jehangir briefing the head of state bureaucracy about the arrangements put in place. The meeting discussed security arrangements made for the smooth conduct of the polls and need of a safe environment for the elections.
In Bandipore, forty candidates will contest for the 12 wards while a candidate for one ward has been elected unopposed. Subrahmanyam had a detailed meeting with the district administration in the local mini-secretariat where the DC Shahid Iqbal Choudhary briefed him. He was informed that adequate security measures have been taken and other necessary facilities have been provided by the district administration for the smooth conduct of municipal elections in Bandipora.
The First Phase
The first phase of elections covers 422 wards in more than 12 districts. Cumulatively, there are 1,283 candidates are in the fray. Separatists have called for a day-long shutdown to protest the polls.
Unlike Jammu that is witnessing a high pitch campaign, Kashmir is low key and the campaign is literally missing in most of the south and central Kashmir. In certain areas, some daring candidates – mostly from BJP, have taken to the social media to communicate with their voters.
While the security concerns are the key challenge, the authorities have added riders to devour any kind of credibility this exercise might have evolved of its own. Even officials are not offering any details about who is contesting from where. There are no names on the notice boards as well. Officials talk in numbers as naming names is a security risk. Media has used quotes from candidates who were willing to be named and all commentaries are attributed to candidates who talk anonymously.
Though the government had promised adequate security to the candidates, in most of the cases, they were restricted to the heavily fortified hotels or the local Dak Bungalows in the peripheral districts. Those who uncontested, mostly from BJP, are already in Jammu.
BJP is being seen as a major beneficiary. Some of its candidates filed papers and returned home to Jammu and were declared winners.
Cumulatively, Kashmir has 598 municipal wards of which there was no nomination at 178 wards. In 190 wards, there was just a single candidate who won. This means there is a contest only on 230 ward seats.
An official spokesman said that sealed Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and other election material for 584 polling stations were handed over to the Polling Officers and Polling Parties under the supervision of District Election Officer, Ramesh Kumar. These include 505 polling stations for One Municipal Corporation Jammu and 79 for Seven Municipal Committees are ready for polling.
The spokesman said this is for the first time, Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) will be used in the ULB polls, for which proper training has been imparted to the polling staff.
A spokesman of the state government quoted the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Shaleen Kabra saying that in the first phase of Municipal Polls-2018 voting will take place at 820 polling stations across the State on October 8, 2018.
He said 150 polling stations have been designated for voting in Kashmir Division and 670 in Jammu Division. “In Kashmir Division 138 polling stations have been categorized as hypersensitive while in Jammu Division 52 polling stations have been categorised hypersensitive,” he said and added that for the Phase-I, 78 candidates have already been elected unopposed.
The CEO said 1204 candidates are in the fray for 321 Municipal Wards in Phase-I, including 83 in Kashmir division and 238 in Jammu division. “The total electorate for Phase-I is 586064,” he said and added that Basic Minimum Facilities (BMF) have been ensured in all the polling stations across the State for voting. He said Photo Voter Slips have already been distributed among the voters to inform them of their polling station.
Kabra said senior government officers have been appointed as General Observers to oversee the smooth, fair and orderly conduct of polls. “Expenditure Observers are also keeping a watch on the expenditure by the candidates,” he said and added that for the poll day Micro Observers have been deployed in polling stations, particularly those considered sensitive/ hypersensitive.
“Besides, the Zonal and Sector Magistrates have been deployed to ensure smooth conduct of polls as well as monitoring the entire process,” CEO said and added that the Deputy Commissioners are undertaking Videography of all critical events related to the poll process.
Kabra said Control Rooms have been established in all the Municipal Bodies across the State to respond promptly to any complaints of violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) as also to disseminate information to the public. He said adequate security arrangements have been made for smooth conduct of polling across the State.
He said the government has also declared a holiday on the day of poll in the municipal areas going to polls so as to enable the voters to cast their vote. He said as per standing guidelines, the Central Government offices shall not be closed but the employees who are electors of the poll going wards and desire to exercise their franchise shall be offered reasonable facility- by way of coming late to office / allowed to leave office early / short absence.
The CEO urged voters to exercise their right to franchise in order to choose their local self-government to address their local needs.
Pertinently, Municipal Elections-2018 are being held in four phases, covering 79 municipal bodies with an electorate of about 17 lakh. A total of 3372 nominations have been filed for 1145 wards. Days of the poll are 8th, 10th, 13th and 16th October for these four phases.