by Khursheed Wani
During the past 22 years, the conduct of elections has been used as an effective tool in Kashmir to change the political discourse on the ground. The process began in 1996 when assembly elections were held first time in nine years after the rigged election of 1987.
The March 1987 polls were a watershed event. It sowed the seeds for people’s disenchantment with the electoral process and consequently exploded in militancy in 1989.
Kashmir’s senior-most unionist leader, National Conference President Dr Farooq Abdullah, has been at the centre for symbolic mobilization to ensure the conduct of polls. In 1996, he returned from the United Kingdom after seven years of self-imposed exile to help Delhi to end the longest spell of central rule. This was the goriest period in Kashmir replete with a number of massacres at the hands of the government forces, gang-rapes, arsons, loot, plunder and hundreds of enforced disappearances.
Farooq Abdullah along with veterans like late Ghulam Rasool Kar with the support of Ikhwanis including Kuka Parray, Javed Shah and Firdous Baba aka Babar Badr, ensured the conduct of 1996 assembly polls. The NC emerged winner with a two-thirds majority and Farooq served a full term as Chief Minister.
In 2017, Farooq was again a crucial player when he contested the Parliamentary by-poll for Srinagar in a highly volatile situation in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing. Seven people were killed for a 7 per cent turnout thus he went to the Parliament. The situation forced authorities to cancel the Anantnag by-poll, never to be conducted in subsequent months. The seat will remain vacant till next year.
In this backdrop when Farooq emerged the first unionist leader to announce boycotting the Urban Local Bodies and Panchayat polls, announced by the Governor Satya Pal Malik-led State Administrative Council (SAC), it was surprising. Conducting these elections has been listed crucial in the run-up to parliamentary polls. The idea behind holding these elections is to set a political process in motion at the grassroots level, and if the test showed a modicum of response, this could be utilized for building an atmosphere to hold the assembly polls after dissolving the state assembly, currently in suspended animation.
Farooq’s decision has put the other unionist camp on notice. The People’s Democratic Party has no option but to follow the suit. This is not precisely because their arch-rival has taken the lead but also because the important decision is linked to their political survival, too.
Interestingly, the NC connected the boycott decision to the Delhi’s approach with the sensitive legal battle initiated by a right-wing affiliate against the Article 35A of the Indian Constitution. The NC’s grudge is that the Indian government has not done enough to safeguard the constitutional guarantee to the residents of the embattled state and mere deferment of the hearing of a case in Supreme Court to the third week of January 2019 is an affront. The UBL polls have been slated between October 1 and 5 while the Panchayat elections have been scheduled between November 8 and December 4. The linkage to the crucial litigation in the apex court is quite obvious.
The unionist politics has survived in Kashmir, especially after 1996, solely through the institution of elections, irrespective of how contested its role has been. No elections were intelligently manipulated exercises conducted in phases under severe security. This explains as to why the leadership that emerged by default through this exercise, despite enjoying stints of power, could not create a legitimate niche for itself.
The last panchayat elections were held on non-party basis. On the face of it, Farooq and the unionist camp should not have been wary on their plunge into the polls. However, the emerging political realities and the unambiguous ground situation are holding them back to the extent of going against the will of the government. The unionist politicians know that their entire gamut of politics revolves around the special status of the state, irrespective of whatsoever form it exists.
If the BJP withdraws special status, to safeguard its own sinking ship, the relevance of Kashmirs’ unionists will end for all times to come. This partly explains Farooq’s predicament. The other important pointer is the uncontrolled ground situation in the Valley, especially in southern districts. The number of active militants has for the first time in a decade’s time surpassed 300. The militants, armed with public support, have exhibited capability to strike at will. The abduction of 11 close relatives of policemen and officers to deter the counter-insurgent grid from harming militants’ relatives was an unprecedented development that arguably cost the head of police chief Shesh Paul Vaid.
The unionists don’t dare to show up in volatile areas and it is unthinkable for them to campaign or at least find candidates or workers to contest any election. This vulnerability also played on Abdullah’s mind when he chose to stay away from the local polls.