J&K Block Development Council election results: New Delhi hails new and youthful leadership, but disregards local democracy's legitimacy crisis

New Delhi’s strategy rests on the assumption that time is on its side, but in months to come, that belief is likely to be sorely tested.

Praveen Swami October 26, 2019 16:16:24 IST
J&K Block Development Council election results: New Delhi hails new and youthful leadership, but disregards local democracy's legitimacy crisis
  • The government has been congratulating itself but a careful examination of the figures gives no reason for great optimism

  • Bar Kupwara, which has historically seen high levels of electoral participation, no district in Kashmir saw real campaigning

  • New Delhi’s strategy rests on the assumption that time is on its side, but in months to come, that belief is likely to be sorely tested

The orders came from as on-high as on-high could get: Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev, then first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was to be escorted into the heart of the Dachigam forest, where a bear would anon wander across his rifle’s sights, sacrificing itself for the greater good of India. The problem also came from on-high: god gave bears savage teeth, and claws, but a profound disinclination for on-demand appearance, and no interest at all in altruistic suicide.

JK Block Development Council election results New Delhi hails new and youthful leadership but disregards local democracys legitimacy crisis

Representational image. PTI

Faced with this apparently-impossible conundrum, Bashir Ahmad—then able servant of the Forest Department, and since guide to terrorists, police informer, timber smuggler—came up with a cunning fix. At the Great Hind Circus in Amritsar was a Himalayan Black Bear, already caged and ready to play its small, but critical tragic role in the making of history.

Perched in his Machaan, Krushchev stared out into the darkness. Ahmad released the bear from its cage, and waited for the rifle shot. Then, things went horribly wrong: the bear grabbed a guard’s bicycle, and began demonstrating his circus skills before the befuddled Krushchev’s eyes.

Like all animal fables, Ahmad’s highly-improbable tale contains an important lesson: in Kashmir, the best laid plans have not infrequently met unfortunate ends. Failings of human nature, self-deception, ideological bias, the chaotic nature of the universe and plain, old-fashioned stupidity: all these have conspired, more than once, to ensure well-intentioned plans ended up engendering outcomes of a sheer perversity of which would have delighted the scholar Robert Merton.

This week, Girish Chandra Murmu will take office as the first Lieutenant-Governor of the new Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Fireman to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the then chief minister of Gujarat fought back-to-back conflagrations which threatened his government from 2002 on, the Indian Administrative Officer has no past Kashmir experience, but a robust understanding of how to get things done.

Modi’s plan is simple. In 2021-2022, after the delimitation of constituencies based on new census data will be complete, Jammu and Kashmir will see legislature elections. In the meantime, the L-G is going to have to ensure top-notch administration, focussed, in particular, on legitimising local bodies from which the government hopes a new, post-Article 370, pro-India leadership will emerge.

Last week’s Block Development Council elections in Kashmir, though, ought make clear this process going to be somewhat less easy to do than advertised. The government has been congratulating itself on a record 98.4 percent turnout, and promising the elections mark “the dawn of a new and youthful leadership”. However, careful examination of the figures gives no reason for great optimism.

First, the high turnout masks the fact that, in the heartlands of the secessionist movement, tiny numbers of electors were involved. In Srinagar, just 37 panches and sarpanches were entitled to vote; in Shopian, that number was 43, and in Pulwama, 94. In all of Kashmir’s 10 districts, just 7,030 panches and sarpanches were entitled to vote in the Block elections.

Bar Kupwara, which has historically seen high levels of electoral participation, no district in Kashmir saw real campaigning; indeed, 24 of 133 Blocks in the 10 districts were won uncontested. Local democracy in Kashmir, the numbers make clear, has a real problem of legitimacy.

The reasons for this legitimacy crisis aren’t hard to find. Protesting Governor’s Rule, the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Congress boycotted local bodies. Even though Kashmir province’s ten districts saw 41.3 percent voter turnout—a sharp upturn from the 2017 election to the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, which witnessed a meagre 7.1 percent, and polls to municipalities which drew just 4.17 percent—the reality was somewhat less impressive than it might appear.

Large swathes of Kashmir saw no meaningful democratic process at all. Kashmir has 17,059 panchayat wards—but only 1,656 saw a contest between two candidates. A staggering 64 percent of wards had no candidate; 4,537 candidates were, moreover, elected unopposed. Polling percentages were dismal in the four southern districts of Kashmir, where secessionist violence is at its highest: just 95 of 5,847 panch wards saw any votes cast.

Things weren’t very different in the 2,135 halqas—clusters of panchayats—where no candidate stood in 708. There was an unopposed candidate in another 699 halqas.

For jihadist groups, the election—cast as a foundation for Kashmir’s democracy—was a free gift. Last August, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s Riyaz Naikoo warned that those filing nominations for elections should bring funeral shrouds—and threatened electors with acid attacks. In the past, such threats failed, but the decision of major political parties to boycott the panchayat elections gave the Hizb a free kick.

In the absence of a meaningful political contest, the panchayat elections ended up giving power to a bizarre assortment of characters: In Kulgam’s Chimar, the mother of a local jihadist came to hold office, unopposed; elsewhere, ex-terrorists and small-time criminals cashed in on the opportunity.

There are, without doubt, some young people with genuine political interests who the local bodies’ elections have given opportunity to, but will they gain mass legitimacy?

India has been here before. In 1996, furious at former chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s reluctance to join in elections without guarantees of greater federal autonomy, New Delhi briefly considered throwing its weight behind the leaders of pro-India militias of former jihadists, like Muhammad Yusuf Parray and Javed Shah. The Intelligence Bureau’s top Kashmir experts, Amarjit Dulat and Asif Ibrahim—both later to serve as spy-chiefs—warned then prime minister Narasimha Rao that such a government would have no legitimacy.

The outcomes of bringing Abdullah on board were also mixed: his government undermined popular support for jihadists, leading to a fall in violence, but its corruption and under-performance fuelled alienation and frustration among youths.

New Delhi’s efforts to create a counterweight to the National Conference, in the form of the Islamic-leaning Peoples Democratic Party, was meant to reach out to this youth cohort, but it’s religious-nationalist polemic helped power the New Islamist movement, which exploded in 2008.

To Home Minister Amit Shah’s credit, the government has resisted the temptation to pack the Block Development Councils with Bharatiya Janata Party candidates—a political coup many in his party have been pushing for. Eighty-one of the BJP’s 218 candidates have won, just 18 from Kashmir, a figure that accurately reflects the party’s reach in the region.

Learning from former prime minister Indira Gandhi and ex-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s disastrous efforts to impose the Congress on Kashmir’s political landscape—actions which precipitated the long jihad which began in 1988—New Delhi has allowed Kashmir to chart its own political destiny.

New Delhi’s hope that that Kashmir’s new local bodies, backed by effective administration, will breed a new, effective leadership may well turn out to be true, but it’s important to remember this is a gamble, not a banker’s cheque.

Both India’s traditional allies and Pakistan-backed jihadists have a shared interest in sabotaging New Delhi’s gamble. Forces like the National Conference are calculating that, faced with future crises, New Delhi will have to return to them as supplicants—just as former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to turn to Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah in 1963, after the Hazratbal crisis, or former prime minister Rao to the Sher-i-Kashmir’s son, in 1996.

Meanwhile, new dangers are growing in the political desolation that Kashmir has now been reduced to. Islamists hostile to India, and to democracy itself, have by default become the sole spokespersons for Kashmir.

New Delhi’s strategy rests on the assumption that time is on its side, but in months to come, that belief is likely to be sorely tested.

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