Conducting Jammu and Kashmir local body polls won't be cakewalk for governor as major parties to boycott exercise

Satya Pal Malik, the newly-appointed governor of Jammu and Kashmir has shown urgency in announcing the dates of the panchayat and municipal polls in the state. This is an indication that New Delhi is expecting the situation on the ground to change by holding these elections. The Jammu and Kashmir administration’s suggestion that the grassroots “democratic process” is more important than debating the concerns raised by the state's political parties over Article 35A of the Constitution has only made things murkier.

What both Malik and New Delhi don't seem to realise is that many people feel that the elections are being forced on them. There are also fears that the BJP-led Centre is planning something "sinister" with regard to Article 35A after the polls. On the last time that elections were held in Kashmir, in April 2017 for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, there was extreme violence and the polling percentage was in single digits.

A top government official said, “How can you provide security to 30,000 people who will be contesting these elections? Despite the security concerns, he (governor) thinks that polls constitute the best instrument for bringing things in order in the Valley...But he is only doing what he has been mandated to do — to bring peace.”

But that peace, says Gul Mohammad Wani, a noted political commentator based in Srinagar, can only be achieved through a sustained dialogue process with separatist groups, and giving assurances to mainstream political parties that their collective voice matters.

File image of Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik. Twitter/@rashtrapatibhvn

File image of Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik. Twitter/@rashtrapatibhvn

Wani said, “When mainstream parties are shying away from the polls, what is the significance of the exercise? It only creates suspicion and mistrust."

What has made things worse for Governor Malik is his latest posturing that the two regional parties — the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party — should “not take a position on Article 35A or Article 370,” because this is “not the right time”.

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah, whose party, the National Conference, has called for a boycott of upcoming polls, said that if the Centre had linked Article 35A with local body elections for the Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Council, the party would have boycotted those polls too.

He said that the central government, which sought adjournment of the hearing on Article 35A till municipal and panchayat elections are held in the state, is itself responsible for creating a dangerous situation.

“Two of the largest mainstream political parties, which have had three three chief ministers in the state, are boycotting the elections. If the government thinks that the credibility of the elections will not be an issue even without their participation, the government is free to do so,” Abdullah said.

In the Kashmir Valley, almost every major political outfit has expressed unwillingness to participate in the polls. As the situation stands, a boycott of polls seems imminent. The threat of militants will only keep voters further away from polling booths.

“There is a misconception in New Delhi that peace and polls are two sides of a coin. They are not,” Abdul Rehman Veeri, senior PDP leader and former law and parliamentary affairs minister, said. “For any political party that represents democracy in Kashmir, it is not an easy decision. New Delhi must understand why we did it (boycott). But it doesn't seem to willing to do so.”

Article 35A of the Indian Constitution empowers the legislature in Jammu and Kashmir to define “permanent residents” of the state and provide special rights and privileges to those permanent residents. However, the stand taken by Jammu and Kashmir’s new governor on the issue, which has already forged some unity between the mainstream and separatist camps, has sent all kinds of wrong signals.

When Malik was called from Bihar to replace NN Vohra, his arrival in Jammu and Kashmir had set the rumour mills on fire. For a long period, speculations were rife that the Narendra Modi-led government was not pleased with the former governor’s handling of the situation in Kashmir. Malik, the first governor of the state with a political background, is a member of the BJP. He has accepted that he has been sent to initiate a political process. But on the question of Article 35A, he has so far remained tight-lipped, or termed it as a "non-issue."

Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta's comments in the Supreme Court that the law is “gender discriminatory” have made things worse.

After the apex court put off the hearing in the case till January 2019, the governor’s administration termed the local body polls as long overdue. If the elections are not held, an official in Raj Bhavan said, then the state will have to wait for another year. The last panchayat and the municipal elections were conducted in 2011 and 2005 respectively.

But given the political uncertainty in the Valley, holding the polls will not exactly be a cakewalk for Raj Bhavan, especially since the state's two principal political parties have announced a boycott, and the threat of large-scale violence looms large.

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Updated Date: Sep 14, 2018 19:42:43 IST

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