The Gupkar Gamble?

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More important than the Gupkar group’s performance in the DDC polls will be what the alliance will do with its potential victories, asks Riyaz Wani

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Gupkar Declaration Signatories addressing a joint press conference after meeting at National Conference President Dr Farooq Abdullah’s residence on Thursday, October 15, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Jammu and Kashmir is gearing up for its first District Development Council (DDC) elections to elect the third tier of its Panchayati Raj system. The erstwhile state had a three-tier system prior to the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A but it never moved beyond the basic Panchayat grouping and the top-tier was completely different.

The DDC polls were announced after Modi government gave its approval to amendments in Jammu and Kashmir’s Panchayati Raj Act, 1989. This has ushered in a three-tier grassroots system of governance like the rest of India.

 A different Model

 The DDCs will be constituted in Jammu and Kashmir‘s all 20 districts. There will be 14 territorial constituencies in each district of the former state. People will elect their representatives to DDCs directly through elections. The twenty districts will make for 280 constituencies.

The issue with the Jammu and Kashmir DDCs is the direct election of its members. In the rest of India, the DDCs are not directly elected but are constituted by the members of the Block Development Councils (BDCs) which are directly elected. Directly elected DDCs thus override the gram panchayats and the BDCs and dilute their powers.

This has triggered the debate about the need for the elected DDCs when the government could have followed the model adopted elsewhere in the country that is more representative of grassroots democracy. 

The DDC members will have complete jurisdiction over the district.  Though the members of the Legislative Assembly and the chairperson of all the BDCs of the district will also be the DDC members, they will wield no power. The Additional District Development Commissioner shall be the chief executive officer of the DDC.

Ulfat, a lawyer, who is contesting DDC poll from Ramhal (Kupwara) as a PAGD candidate. Photo: Facebook

Also as per the amendments, seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women have been reserved which will be filled by direct election to the District Development Councils.

“This system is no grassroots democracy. It is something else. You are only killing the powers of gram panchayats and the BDCs, ” said Shafiq Mir, the president of J&K Panchayat Conference who himself is a Block Development Council Chairman.  “The issue is when you directly elect members of the DDC and give them exclusive control of the development activities in the district where does this leave the elected members of gram panchayats and the BDCs?”

Mir, who finally merged his party into Apni Party, said that after coming into being of the DDCs, the Panchayat and the BDC members in the rural areas of the district will have to jockey for power with its members. “In every territorial constituency in a district, there will be a sarpanch and maybe one or two BDC members besides a DDC member. How will there be a consensus over what development work should be prioritized in the area?” Mir asked. “Similarly, in a DDC while an MLA and a BDC chairperson will be members, they will be subservient to elected members. So, how will their opinion matter?”

Gupkar Group

The newly floated grouping of the mainstream parties, People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) has decided to participate. The six-party alliance, led by former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference Chief Farooq Abdullah, took the decision after a   meeting in Jammu, where members of the amalgam met around 30 separate delegations on a set of listed agenda, including the DDC polls.

Mehbooba Mufti visits Lidroo in Pahalgam where the Forest officials demolished the Gujjar hutments in November 2020.

In a significant decision, Congress has also decided to jointly contest the DDC polls jointly with the PAGD. Incidentally, the decision came after the national party had skipped the recent meetings of the grouping. Now Congress has let it be known that the decision to stay away from the Gupkar alliance was tactical in nature in view of the Bihar polls and also a consequence of some controversial statements made by Dr Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. Abdullah was alleged to have said that China will help Kashmir regain the lost autonomy and Mehbooba had said she wouldn’t pick up national flag until Jammu and Kashmir flag was restored. Now the Congress has said it remains very much a part of the PAGD and would fight the upcoming DDC polls “together”.

Senior Congress leader Prof Saifuddin Soz has said that the fresh set of laws issued by the Centre on land, industry and scholarships “were meant to dis-empower the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the non-BJP parties have the right to fight these draconian measures”. This is a shot in the arm of the Gupkar alliance. Together with the six parties will make a formidable combination and are likely to command the lion’s share of the DDC positions in the union territory. 

8-Phase Polls

The eight-phase polls which begin from November 28 were announced all of a sudden with the constituencies of the districts yet to be delimited. But the Gupkar alliance was also quick to declare its participation taking many people by surprise as earlier the utterances of its top leaders like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba had said they won’t be personally taking part in the exercise. This seemed to indicate that the Gupkar alliance was reluctant to fight polls as some quarters had expressed apprehensions that this would normalise the revocation of Article 370. But the PAGD decision has belied such expectations.

Lt Governor Manoj Sinha visits Civil Secretariat as Darbar resumes full functioning at Jammu in the first week of November 2020. Pic: DIPR

The PAGD has rationalised its decision to participate as a bid to reclaim the political space, cautioning that doing otherwise would enable the BJP and its allied parties to fill in the vacuum and control the levers of power. The grouping also argues that strengthening its political presence at the district level will add force to its position that Article 370 was revoked without consulting people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Given the powers the DDCs, they have become the kind of mini-assemblies and the Gupkar alliance wants to control them to enhance its political clout. After over a year-long hiatus, the political activity is about to pick up again in Jammu and Kashmir. The coming weeks and months are going to get interesting.

Representative Character  

Senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar said that the decision was necessary to prove their representative character. “If we achieve a landslide victory which we believe we will, we can talk with greater credibility about Kashmir,” he said. “Then we will tell the world how the decision revoke Article 370 was taken without consulting us. It is for this purpose that we have joined forces”.

Three former Chief Ministers’ who have cumulatively ruled Jammu and Kashmir for almost a quarter-century are leading the Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Akhtar added that the PAGD can’t let the BJP control the DDCs and allow it to use the structure to serve its political ends. “The BJP can also use its control of the DDCs to justify repeal of Article 370. This we can’t allow to happen”.

The Other Side

However, the other opinion is that the PAGD decision to contest polls normalises the revocation of Article 370 that granted J&K autonomous status within Indian Union.

“To those myopics out there who are fooling others saying that Delhi will call off this process after today’s announcement and therefore this is a masterstroke. Please have some mercy upon yourselves if not on others. Delhi, even if it calls it off, has tested your aptitude,” tweeted Ruhullah Mehdi, a former Jammu and Kashmir minister about the PAGD decision to participate in the DDC election. “And tested your resistance to a bigger piece which they shall throw. They are now sure since you couldn’t resist the small pieces, you will automatically jump for the bigger one too. Play by their rules. Fall deep in their trap. They tested you today for tomorrow”.

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Moreover, a section of public opinion in Kashmir sees in the PAGD’s participation in the polls a climb-down from their earlier hints about boycotting the process. As Mehdi has underlined, the participation in the polls is seen as tantamount to playing by the new rules set by the centre that normalizes the Article 370 decision. This section wants the Gupkar alliance to boycott the electoral process to press the return to pre-August 5, 2019 position. 

On the other hand, the BJP and the parties that are pro-centre in Jammu and Kashmir like the Apni Party of Altaf Bukhari have also taken an oblique dig at the PAGD for its decision to take part in the polls.

“It took Sheikh Abdullah 22 years to realize right track, PAGD did it in less than a month,” Bukhari tweeted soon after the Gupkar alliance announced its decision. “I welcome PAGD’s decision to contest DDC polls, power flows from grassroots only, Apni Party will fight for amendment of land laws, restoration of Statehood, Article 370”.

Similarly, senior BJP leader and the party’s former point-man on Kashmir Ram Madhav tweeted: “Gupkar Group now says no longer any boycott of polls. They will fight DDC polls in d state to save ‘sacred space of democracy’ -Sajjad Lone. Good for Farooq and Mehbooba to realise the futility of boycott and returning to the constitutional process of elections”.

On the other hand, the BJP minister Dr Jitendra Singh has asked the Gupkar alliance to withdraw its members from the parliament if it didn’t support the withdrawal of Article 370.

“If they (NC and Congress leaders) do not approve of the Parliament having passed the Bill to abrogate Article 370, then in the interest of parliamentary propriety, they should resign from their membership of Parliament,” Singh was quoted saying in Jammu where he addressed the party workers and later a press conference. He told the party workers not to become defensive when the opposition talks about the abrogation of Article 370. “We have the facts, figures and confidence to defend the newly enacted land laws as well as the other legislations enacted” in Jammu and Kashmir.

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The electoral process has just begun. The parties are releasing the list of their candidates for each constituency. For the first phase, the PAGD has released the candidature of 27 candidates including two from Peoples Conference, three from PDP and the balance 22 from National Conference. BJP and Apni Party have also announced the candidature. Considering the parties with Gupkar group comprise over two-third mainstream politics of Jammu and Kashmir, they should potentially corner most of the DDC seats. However, more important than their performance in the polls will be what the grouping will do with its potential victories.

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