As the Election Commission of Jammu and Kashmir conducted the third leg of the four-phased municipal elections on Saturday, one thing becomes clear: Conducting urban and local body elections in the conflict-ridden state will remain a herculean task.
Though successive governments have faced this problem since the 1990s, inspiring confidence and coaxing voters out of their homes was more difficult for the BJP-led central government this time as the two major regional parties — People’s Democratic Party and National Conference — opted to stay away from the polls.
Days before the elections, the state witnessed a major political shift when many of the NC workers, including spokesperson Junaid Mattoo, left the party to contest the polls, which were being held after 13 years. Political analysts believe this could be NC’s backdoor move to put up proxy candidates so as to avoid threats to their lives from militants, while the party stuck to its stand of boycotting elections.
Threat to life
On 5 October, three days before the first phase of the polls, two NC workers were gunned down by militants in broad daylight in Srinagar. It is believed that Nazir Ahmad and Mushtaq Ahmad — both close aides of local NC MLA from Habbakadal Shamima Firdous — were attacked since they were backing the municipal elections. However, Firdous alleged that the BJP-RSS were involved in the killing. Denying such allegations, the BJP said the NC was making such statements out of desperation.
The first phases of the elections were rife with threats and boycott calls from separatists as well as mainstream parties. The Valley witnessed a turnout of only 8 percent. The turnout was an indicator of the fear that locals live with. Muzaffar, a resident from one of the districts that went to polls during the first phase, said, "It is just another bandh. There is nothing called elections here. If we go for polls, we will be killed. The government cannot provide round-the-clock security."
Despite attempts like changing poll timings and advancing it by an hour, the poll percentage dipped further in the second phase when only 3 percent of the electorate turned to the polling station in the Valley. The voter turnout percentage in terror-hit areas of the Valley is likely to go down still as militants on Friday night gunned down a 'follower' working with Jammu and Kashmir police in Sopore. (A follower is a personnel who is deployed as an assistant of police officers.)
The BJP, which is likely to benefit by the NC-PDP boycott call, is hopeful of a relatively better turnout in the Valley in Phase 3. While 350 BJP candidates are contesting in 600 municipal wards in 10 districts of the Kashmir, around 60 have already won the elections unopposed.
"One thing is very clear, Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t mean one or two districts. It includes 22 districts of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh province. The voting percentage in Jammu and Ladakh are self-explanatory,” state BJP Chief Ravinder Raina said. "The low turnout in the Valley is due to the fear psychosis that the militants have created among locals. Our forces will soon wipe them out and their so-called fear psychosis. Any attempt to destabilise democracy will be given a befitting reply," he added.
According to the state Election Commission, 2,990 candidates are in the fray for the 1,145 wards in 79 municipal bodies of Jammu and Kashmir. Official figures shared by the Election Commission indicate that 244 candidates have won unopposed. A senior Election Commission official said that only 13 among the 244 are from Jammu region and the rest (231) are from the Valley. While 78 candidates won unopposed in phase 1, 65 candidates made through in phase 2, 49 in phase 3 and 52 in the last phase of Municipal Elections.
In 177 wards, not even a single candidate contested the poll. These wards are concentrated in Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian, Baramulla and Bandipore districts. These are also the areas most affected by militancy.
In Pulwama district's Awantipora town, 11 out of 13 seats found no candidate whereas two were elected uncontested. In hometown of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, four candidates were elected uncontested whereas nine seats didn't have even a single candidate.
These areas have always been influenced by the parties that have maintained an anti-establishment stance against the Centre. Before its alliance with the BJP, the PDP was the hero for residents of these districts. In the 2014 general elections, the PDP had a clean sweep in the Valley by winning all the three Lok Sabha seats. In the Assembly elections in 2014, out of the total 46 seats in the Valley, the PDP had won 25 seats whereas the NC had won 12 seats. The Congress had won four while Sajjad Gani Lone's JKPC had won two seats.
With external forces such as Pakistan-backed militants and separatist in the Valley, the people of this region largely harbour secessionist sentiments and want Kashmir to be an autonomous entity associated with neither India nor Pakistan.
The author is a Jammu-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.
Updated Date: Oct 14, 2018 08:10 AM