Setting The Trends

Elections to the Parliament are over in J&K. Moderate mobilization and low participation apart, the exercise exhibited many interesting aspects which may reflect in its outcome. R S Gull reports ten distinct trends that made this elaborate exercise different in state’s electoral history

People-listening-to-Sajad-Lone-in-Kupwara-during-an-election-rallyFor different elections, J&K’s Chief Electoral Officer Umang Narula told reporters on the last day of polling in the state, his office adopts different strategies in consultation with different people. This is true with the people and the characters having direct stakes. Even those who lack any direct role or oppose it evolve different strategies. This is part of the routine evolution of the systems that link the exercise with the people.

The results are slated to be out next Friday. It is too early to suggest if the verdict in low-polled Lok Sabha (LS) elections will have any impact on the state assembly elections, scheduled later this year.

Historically, elections in J&K have acquired their distinct identities: nominating representatives in immediate post-partition, preventing opposition from fielding papers in most of Bakhshi era, massive participation and rigging in 1987, and voters being dragged to the polling stations in 1996. Though most of these were related to the state assembly elections in which people feel more involved, the Lok Sabha elections were not very different. While there has not been any wild facet involved with the just concluded exercise, it still has many interesting aspects.

1. The Boycott Burden

Stark Message: At the point where Old town Baramulla was wired down, these stones were seen collected beforehand by cops.

Kashmir has three LS seats that have a cumulative electorate of 3721310. At the end of the last phase in the state, total number of voters who participated were at 1150596. It means 30.91% voted. That also means 69.9% stayed away. Had it been a secondary school examination, it would mean the candidate failed. But democracy works differently!

Boycott has been an astounding statement in all the LS and assembly elections in recent past. Peoples’ participation was at 33.16% in 1998 polls. It fell to 27.72% in 1999 and touched an all-time low of 22.73% in 2004. For 2009 LS polls the participation improved to 31.24% but fell marginally to 30.91% this season.

The impact of boycott was dumfounding for PDP as most of its influence base in south Kashmir stayed away. Srinagar refused to compromise its past record and parts of north plains followed the trend, this time, in reaction to hanging of Afzal Guru.

Since its emergence in 1996, ‘boycott’ has evolved into a major tool. It was fundamentally responsible for the vertical split in Hurriyat post-2002. This season it was not popular with many stakeholders in Kashmir’s freedom factory. However, it was highly popular with the unionist parties who used it as a weapon to reduce opponents EVM finger-pushes.

In certain areas, some unionists were heard convincing people that voting for LS and assembly has different impact. ‘Voting in Parliament means voting for India and voting for assembly means choosing the local governance structure which, even under a UN resolution, is not disturbing the disputed status of Kashmir’!

2. The Coalition Circus

soz-omar-rahul-gandhiAs the coalition partners were cobbling a pre-poll alliance, there was resistance. Converting a voter to support an ally is the real big headache in politics. But everybody surrendered to the ‘high command’. As the getting got tough, it started showing. NC failed to get Congress its support base in Rajouri-Poonch. Congress retained the Muslim support in Chenab Valley on its own. But it triggered a reaction.

When Islamabad went to polls, most of Congress base went against the party direction and polled for opposition. In the central Kashmir, NC was hoping for a better performance in Khansahab but Hakeem Yasin looked other way and supported ‘boycott’. As things moved north, it proved deadly: Congress’s Taj felt pressurized to say that NC in Uri town voted for PDP. Associate Congressman Ghulam Hassan Mir who had hosted Chief Minister after his dad sought public apology from him, helped the crisis become a table talk. He said he did his bit to get vote for the coalition but failed. My people, he said, have traditionally been anti-NC and mobilizing this electorate for NCs support was very difficult.

3. Opposition Rises

Election-Campaign---Sajad-LoneRegardless of the outcome of the exercise, this election indicates further fragmentation of the mandate as part of the rise of anti-NC opposition in Kashmir. PDP as the big brother in opposition camp has already devoured south Kashmir and now Sajjad Lone’s Peoples Conference and Engineer Rashid’s Awami Ittehad Party (AIP) are gradually creating indelible impressions in north. Though neither of the two is expected to make it to the LS, they definitely have been the main generators of involvement of the youth in the region. Their rise may check PDPs influence as well.

Even though the participation is less, the contest is getting hot and fierce. For the first time in history, NC is facing a stiff opposition.

State’s principal opposition PDP was increasingly accused of being supported by the Muslim right wingers owing to its ‘soft separatist’ outlook. This election proved that completely wrong. While it was reported that most of the Jamaat-e-Islami cadres in south stayed away from the exercise and the party faced a massive boycott in three districts of Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam, the party is comfortable even with the best polled Islamabad only. That means the party has started raising, owning and promoting its cadres. It is just not an alternative address to the anti-NC vote, it seemingly has its own vote as well.

4. Human Rights Matters

pellet injuries  (1)Even though the incidence of violations of human rights has reduced, the issue is still rated very high across Kashmir. Improving the state of human rights in his area of influence was the main attraction for the people to join Engineer Rashid’s rallies in north Kashmir. Slogans like ‘zulum drav jabar drav, engineer aaov, engineer aaov’ were indicative of the USP he has created fore himself during his more than five years in Langate belt. His activism has fetched him good crowds beyond his home, even in old city of Baramulla and the periphery of Sopore.

Mufti Sayeed continues to get better response for his three years governance especially for his emphasis on human rights that he successfully packaged in his healing touch policy. That was precisely the reason for the slogans: ‘yeli yee Mufti, teli tschali sakhti’. Areas lacking incidents of militancy may have lesser instances of alleged violations of human rights, but it continues to be a major issue in belts having active militancy like Tral. That was perhaps why SSG had to request Ms Mehbooba Mufti not to stay any longer in Tral where the crowds kept her busy till late after the sunset during her campaigning. Mufti’s claim that he pulled down a government after 18 deaths in 2008 summer helps him bulldoze his opposition that is accused of massacring 120 youth in 2010 unrest. His party had made pellet guns and chilli grenades a major election issue.

5. Fairness Is Utopia

A mobile voter being taken into custody during Srinagar poll day.Pic: Rouf Bhat
A mobile voter being taken into custody during Srinagar poll day.Pic: Rouf Bhat

This election, Srinagar saw not much of the moment of the special people: the mobile voters. Though a number of them had driven to the city and were housed properly, they could not move around much this time. After one political party petitioned the officials, two vehicles carrying ‘mobile’ voters were intercepted and detained. There were some arrests as well.

But there were instances of systemic denial of the right to sections of the people. Baramulla old town, for instance, had all its 11 polling stations relocated out of the vast area barely a day before the polls. Of its four bridges linking the area with the polling stations, three were sealed by concertina wires and on fourth the stone-pelters and the cops remained busy in ding dong battles for the whole day. It was this ‘open bridge’ that voters were supposed to cross!

Though political parties petitioned the election commission against each other for various acts of violations of the model code of conduct, there has not been any visible action, so far. This was contrary to how the Commission responded in cases pertaining to BJP and Congress.

6. Technology Taking Over

sevenThis election was slightly different from earlier polls as the Election Commission introduced live webcast from a section of polling stations. Whether or not this made a big difference but it conveyed the possibility of using technology in making systems better and party neutral.

NC was the only state party that hired a chopper. But Mufti managed a couple of high end mini-buses that have better facilities for travel including that of sleeping and shower. These specially designed vehicles are called vanity vans and are used by the actors.

But the single big technology that changed the process is the cell phone. It contributed to the process much more than social media but stayed away from the overall discourse. Imagine a politician sitting in Srinagar getting minute-to-minute information about how voters are behaving near LoC. This time, polling agents would keep the contestant very well inform which triggered immediate response and interventions for the good or bad of it.

EVM, however, continues to be a difficult thing to handle for a section of the voters, especially in the periphery and among aged.

7. Strategists, Not Tantriks

Till recently, politicians in J&K – as elsewhere, used to consult astrologists, Tantriks and faith healers, to pick the best dates for whatever they planned to do. They would decide the calendars of the leaders and their aides as well. That was over this season as situation was out of control for any of the above. It needed science and a bit of art.

Principal political parties in J&K were running mini-war rooms in Srinagar and Jammu that would get minute-by-minute pulse and react to emerging situations. These rooms framed strategies and responses. Media management was part of this set-up for all these days. To the bets of the knowledge, NC approached elections with a best case scenario: boycott, benefits that come while being in government, support from allies. Its opposition the PDP approached with the worst case scenario: mobile voting, boycott in its bases etc. Which one of the strategy worked well would be out on Friday.

8. Insulated From Plains

Modi at  Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine while campaigning for its candidate Jitendra Singh Rana.
Modi at Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine while campaigning for its candidate Jitendra Singh Rana.

Unlike Jammu that felt part of the political trends from the plains, Kashmir remained immune. Modi emerged a principal choice in Jammu’s Hindus because that was the Hindutva trend elsewhere. There were rumours that even Congress ministers voted for him. Even names were named.

But it did not trigger Kashmir into an anti-Modi universe. Though Kashmir is not oblivious of Modi’s track record in Gujarat, or what happened in Assam within days after his speech, Kashmir refused to play a part in the secularism versus communalism battle. This was despite the fact that the ruling coalition made it the principal focus of its campaigning.

That does not, however, necessarily mean the rejection of NCs ideas. With its demographic homogeneity, Kashmir has stayed comfortable on communal front right from 1947. It lacks the insecurities as a society as might exist in Chenab Valley or Pir Panchal valley. It demonstrated it the best when Babri Masjid was demolished by BJP. As massive rioting took places across India, Kashmir was on a three day protest strike to mourn the assassination of Harday Nath Wanchoo.

However, if Modi replaces Dr Manmohan Singh, NC will face a problem. For the last sixty years it has been saying it helped J&K accede to India because it preferred secularism over Pakistan’s theocracy. With Modi in throne, this argument may require a change especially if he is so sure to do away with the fig leaf of autonomy that J&K has.

J&K is so much insulated from Delhi politics that the leaders across ideologies are friendly with each other. Political grapevine suggests that a senior Congress leader agreed to get into the ring only after he managed change the candidacy of his right-wing rival! In making this happen, he was supported by every party including the ruling party.

9. Missing In Action

MuftisPolitics is all about mobilization. It does not happen just because people think they are leaders. An impressive turnout in Kupwara was not only because the border belt has a tradition of polling (even Dardpora, Trehgam and Kunan voted). The other major factor was the participation of two locals – Salamuddin Bajad, and Engineer Rashid. Some of the best visuals of the campaigning came from the two candidates in which gatherings were huge, youth were involved and engagement was visible.

But there were spots in which people from known political backgrounds stayed away. “Muftis drove from Srinagar with a huge media battery to cast their votes,” a People Conference activist said. “Nobody asked him if his ancestral polling station has more than 700 votes, why only 40 votes were polled?”

There are instances in NC as well, especially in Srinagar city.

10. Low Cost, High Yield

PDP DancerKashmir, this election, exhibited a lackluster campaign. No buntings, no high end campaigns. It was only NC that could hire a chopper, that too, for a very brief period. Official circles suggest that the government pumped more money into the security than the contestants in the elections. Umang Narula told reporters that it could take him some more time to calculate the overall expenditure of the exercise.

Though the election commission has put a ceiling of Rs 70 lakh per candidate, there are strong doubts that any of the contestants across Kashmir might have booked that much of expenditure.

Take the Srinagar seat, for instance, that had 40 candidates in fray. All the 14 contestants put together do not make even half a crore rupees. Information available with Kashmir Life suggests that NC managed the campaign with Rs 24 lakh, the highest spender, followed by Tariq Hameed Karra with Rs 7.80 lakh. Interestingly, BJPs Fayaz Bhat has booked an expenditure of Rs 5.60 lakh.

But those in political parties say lot of money was spent. It might have been spent informally, who knows?

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