Shakir Mir, The Wire

Srinagar: District Development Councils (DDCs) tend to have very little political power. Yet the BJP-ruled Centre conducted the recent DDC polls in Jammu and Kashmir on a scale quite out of proportion to their diminutive profile.

The reasons are obvious. Since the Centre revoked J&K’s special status last year, it has adopted a scorched earth policy towards Kashmiris. It has enacted land laws that open the union territory to all comers, liberalised domicile laws, conducted demolition drives in forests, made structural changes in administration that reduce the centrality of Kashmiris, raised new property taxes, opened state resources to outsiders, instituted laws attractive to migrant labourers and reduced the retirement age and also the civil service quota for local Indian Administrative Services and Indian Police Service officers in the union territory (UT) from 50% to 33%.

DDCs too, by creating overlapping power patterns, undermine the strength of elected legislators while concentrating power in the hands of unelected civil servants who remain in service to the Centre.

All these measures attack the very rhythm on which civic life in Kashmir is centred. Surely that was precisely the motive, because unless Kashmiris feel the assault at close quarters and find themselves beleaguered by a new set of political imperatives, they won’t forgo “separatism”.

But at the same time, the outcry generated by these policies and the draconian ways in which the Narendra Modi government instituted them in the UT (a heady mix of martial laws, mass detentions, surveillance, intimidation and internet blockades), have necessitated the need to project an image of normalcy. That’s perhaps why the Centre chaperoned a group of embedded journalists through Kashmir, enlisting high profile correspondents from the New York Times and the Financial Times even though the entry of foreign reporters to Kashmir has remained barred since 2018.

‘A complete drubbing’

For the BJP, the DDCs polls were the way to measure the disquiet into which it had thrown J&K after abrogating article 370, the ‘peace’ achieved through political repression notwithstanding. The polls showed that the annoyance over the changes in the land and domicile laws was as salient in Jammu, where electoral victory for the BJP has always been a foregone conclusion, as in Kashmir. And the elections have laid bare the astounding limits to which the BJP can go to fabricate success for itself where little of it is possible.

At the very start, the party used official machinery in J&K to limit candidates from the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) in their campaigning. Opposition leaders were targeted with notices from the Anti Corruption Bureau and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Even the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) Waheed ur Rehman Para, who once harvested a huge gathering of Kashmiris for a public event that the BJP’s Rajnath Singh addressed, was summoned by the National Investigation Agency for allegedly having links with militants. He is currently lodged in Tihar jail.

Now the results of the elections are out and the BJP is claiming success because it has bagged the majority of votes – 75 seats out of the 235 it was contesting. Its conclusion is technically misleading because the votes it managed to reap come predominantly from five Hindu majority districts of Jammu, Kathua, Sambha, Udhampur and Reasi, where the turnout was huge. Overall in Jammu, 68% of voters registered their ballots compared to 33% in Kashmir.

In reality, the BJP’s vote share in Jammu, when plotted against the vote shares registered during parliamentary and assembly elections in the past, has declined from 59% to 34%. Also, the fact that the Bahujan Samajwadi Party was able to open its account in Kathua suggests that the caste factor is starting to play a disadvantageous role for the BJP. The BJP also hasn’t won a single seat in the Muslim majority Poonch region.

On the top of that, the National Conference (NC) has emerged as a force to reckon with in Jammu, winning 25 seats. The NC has also fared exceptionally well in Ramban, Kishtwar and Rajouri districts of Jammu, bagging six, six and five seats respectively. The party contested 168 seats and won 67, while the PDP fielded candidates for 68 seats and won 27.

Para, a notable face of the PDP who is now in Tihar jail, also won from his seat, Pulwama. If the BJP had wagered that the NIA case would hurt the PDP, the opposite happened. Para won by a comfortable margin. His party also won in the border village of Nowshera, the home constituency of the BJP’s J&K president, Ravinder Raina, by a margin of 2,904 votes.

Furthermore, Sajad Lone’s People Conference (PC) has emerged as the party with the highest strike rate. “We contested 10 seats and won eight,” Adnan Ashraf Mir, the PC’s spokesperson, told The Wire. “In Kupwara, we contested six seats and won five.”

This shows that the grouping of regional political parties into an electoral alliance turned out to be a powerful strategy that has effectively outmanoeuvred the BJP in its own game, despite its near total control over power levers and its unrestrained propensity for manipulation.

“What the BJP suffered in J&K is nothing short of a complete drubbing,” said Gowhar Geelani, a Kashmiri journalist and political commentator. “Normally elections in Kashmir are held on the plank of providing electricity, water and roads. This time the Gupkar Alliance explicitly fought for the reinstatement of Article 370 and they have completely swept the polls and marginalised the BJP.”

‘Like China with Tibet’

If we looked at the three seats that the BJP won in Kashmir, it’s clear that they were won by only a few hundred votes. These victories relied on the boycott of the polls that had been observed in varying degrees across the Kashmir valley, leading about 67% of the voters to abstain from voting.

Another factor responsible for the BJP’s victories in Kashmir is the fielding of proxy candidates by members of the Gupkar Alliance. In Pulwama’s Kakapora, where the BJP won, votes cast against the BJP seem to have been divided between the PDP candidate officially fielded by the PAGD and a proxy candidate believed to be associated with the NC. As a result, the BJP managed to defeat the PDP by a slim margin of 14 votes.

 “In fact, the boycott served the BJP’s interests. They had probably expected the mainstream parties to boycott elections but they did not and stole a long march over the saffron party’s designs,” Geelani said.

The results of the polls mean that the PAGD will likely control 13 of the 20 DDCs across J&K. While DDCs are exclusively mandated for developmental activities and have no say in larger politics, the winning candidates have the potential to act as “disruptors” who can raise their voices on issues such as Article 370 and cannot be as easily sidelined as mainstream politicians. This is the second way in which the Centre’s emphasis on the DDC polls might backfire.

“These were not assembly elections where the number of votes matter. What matters is how many district councils the BJP will be able to chair, because every district acts as autonomous unit,” said Khalid Shah, associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. “Six is the maximum number they can realistically look at. That’s what they have been reduced to. This clearly indicates that the people have reposed their faith in the PAGD.”

The Modi government also seems to have shot itself in the foot by presuming that it can enlist reporters from publications like the New York Times into an embedded team and expect charitable coverage. An India-based correspondent of an international publication told The Wire that there had been a sense of surprise and disapproval among his colleagues.

“Some foreign journalists who weren’t invited seemed to feel blindsided to learn that other reporters were there,” he said. “They also discussed whether or not they would have accepted such an invitation. Some said they wouldn’t have. We all went quiet to await the results of our colleagues’ reporting.”

By Wednesday morning, reports filed by the embedded journalists had appeared in their respective publications. Stephanie Findlay of the Financial Times did not see signs of ‘normalcy or democracy’ but a sense of pervasive militarisation and unarticulated disquiet. “In some polling stations, there were twice as many soldiers as there were voters and the internet was shut off,” she observed.

Findlay quoted a voter from North Kashmir who said, “For now the fight is about [Article] 370 but the ultimate goal is freedom from India.”

Her report continued: “As he was talking, six troops walked over to monitor the interview, forming a ring around him. Growing uncomfortable, he took his leave. ‘This is all a facade,’ he said about the polls. ‘We have been living under oppression for so long and it will continue’.”

‘Kashmir Votes, and India Hails It as Normalcy in a Dominated Region’ was the headline of Emily Schmall’s story for the New York Times. “India’s ruling party worked to make Kashmir’s rural development council elections a showcase. But a visit by Times reporters showed a place still struggling under heavy-handed rule,” was how the story was presented. Both influential publications made it clear that their reporters had been on a government-organised, tightly controlled trip.

“The whole trip is very revealing,” said Siddiq Wahid, a historian and a political analyst. “They brought these people in a manner which is reminiscent of how China would conduct a visit to Tibet.”

‘Death of democracy in J&K’

The election victory for PAGD is doubly significant because they were not contesting on the same playing field as the BJP and the Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party, which is generally considered to be the BJP’s sidekick. An administration run by the BJP-ruled Centre overseeing elections was already bound for controversy. In the first phase of the DDC polls, the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) general secretary Surinder Singh Channi flagged concerns over the ‘unwanted’ shifting of polling stations in the Tral area. Channi accused the administration of trying to stop voters from casting their votes by shifting the polling stations.

The government has also been accused of exploiting the controversy over the Roshni Act – a law which sought to regularise the occupation of state lands, but was repealed two years ago – to stoke the fears of a “land jihad” in Jammu and project an impression of corrupt and venal mainstream Kashmiri Muslim politicians. By selectively releasing a list of beneficiaries of the Roshni Act, the BJP associated this impression with members of the NC and the PDP. The campaign to ‘retrieve’ forests lands that had been ‘encroached’ also picked up pace ahead of the elections, even though it became known that the Modi government was deliberately not implementing the Forest Rights Act that would have protected the habitations of these forests dwellers and rendered illegal all the ‘retrievals’ made by the J&K administration.

Though the ED, the administration attached assets worth Rs 11.86 crores from the NC’s Farooq Abdullah in connection with the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association money-laundering case. One day before the results were declared, the government also detained a number of mainstream leaders. This is why former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had to convene a press conference yesterday evening, claiming that she might be booked soon by one of the central investigating agencies.

“I am asking the BJP to fight me politically and not misuse the agencies against my relatives. I am aware this press conference could be my last one,” she said. “These agencies are auditing my late father’s graveyard, my relatives’ properties. The ED raided the houses and offices of two of my colleagues today. Three party leaders, Sartaj Madni, Peer Mansoor and Naeem Akhtar, are jailed without any formal orders.”

Besides all this, there were also allegations that the J&K police was obstructing voting in select constituencies in Kashmir to turn the results in favour of the BJP. When three Kashmiri reporters went to verify this claim, they were allegedly thrashed by the senior superintendent of police in Anantnag.

Yesterday too, Omar Abdullah of the NC accused the administration of preventing a member of the NC from negotiating with independent winners of the DDC polls. “The administration has now taken on the responsibility of trying to collect independent candidates for the BJP & it’s recently formed subsidiary. It seems the government doesn’t have enough to do & has branched out in to this line of work as well (sic),” he tweeted. “An ex-MLC of @JKNC_ from South Kashmir has been taken away by the police to stop him contacting the independent DDC members elected in his district. At the same time the authorities are taking the trouble to transport some of these independents to Srinagar for ‘discussions’.”

Mehbooba Mufti shared a Facebook post from a DDC member-elect’s relative, alleging that his father had been abducted by politicians from the Apni Party with help from the J&K Police. Mufti wrote: “BJP & its proxies are sore losers & have resorted to abducting independents who won DDC elections. They are shamelessly using all means to increase their tally. This isn’t dance but death of democracy in J&K (sic).”

‘A prelude to delimitation’

Another arena where the DDC elections results will be consequential will be the forthcoming delimitation. There are concerns that the voting pattern emerging from the DDC polls may help the Centre in its proposed move to redraw electoral boundaries in J&K.

“The DDC polls were a prelude to delimitation. Had the BJP been able to sweep the polls as they had expected, you would have expected assembly elections at the earliest,” said Sheikh Showkat, a Kashmiri legal expert and political analyst. “But now there will be delays and certainly we might expect some manipulation as far as delimitation is concerned. Take, for instance, Ramban constituency. It is 83% Muslim but was reserved for scheduled castes just to deny Muslims their representation. Similarly, Pir Panjal and Chenab regions are in proximity to each other and could have formed a formidable Muslim majority block, but today we see that Pir Panjal has been clubbed with Jammu and Chenab with Udhampur constituencies. Such strategic reallocation of constituencies ensures that the Muslim vote is effectively undermined. If Congress governments have done these things in the past, BJP will feel no hesitation to repeat them.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar based journalist.

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