Last Saturday (15 September) was a very eventful day for Jammu and Kashmir as Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Shaleen Kabra announced a schedule for elections to urban local bodies (ULBs). On the next day, he made another announcement declaring the schedule for holding of panchayat elections.
Earlier, doubts were expressed regarding these elections as two main Kashmir-based regional parties, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had announced that they will boycott them. Another party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had also announced a poll boycott, with lone CPM legislator Yusuf Tarigami making this announcement. Given these boycott calls, it was feared at one time that the government headed by Governor Satya Pal Malik, may backtrack from holding of elections.
As if on cue, some reports of targeting buildings of panchayat ghars were received from some rural areas of Kashmir. At most of these places, miscreants set fire to panchayat ghars and this led to some damages to these structures. However, at most of these places, the locals immediately tried to rush in and extinguish these fires. Clearly, the local populace did not want wanton destruction of these community assets.
Incidentally, the state unit of the Congress has declared that it will participate both in the elections for the ULBs and the panchayats. The second largest political party in the state, the BJP, which has 25 elected MLAs in the 87-member Legislative Assembly, is also scheduled to take part in these elections.
An announcement to this effect was made by the Jammu and Kashmir Congress chief Ghulam Ahmed Mir in Srinagar on Wednesday in the presence of senior party leaders. Some party leaders from the Jammu region had also gone to Srinagar to be present at a press conference which Mir addressed. With the Congress present in all the three regions of the state — Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh — the stage is thus set for a show of strength between the BJP and the Congress at most places in the state.
It may be recalled that the BJP had parted company with the PDP on 19 June saying the party was withdrawing support to then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. This had ended the bonhomie between the coalition partners, the PDP and the BJP, which had started with the swearing-in of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed on 1 March, 2015.
Interestingly, National Conference patriarch Farooq Abdullah was the first to announce the decision to boycott ULB and panchayat polls. Its arch rival in state politics, the PDP, followed suit some days later. Giving reasons for the boycott of polls, Abdullah said that the atmosphere in the state was not conducive to holding of elections.
He claimed that the onslaught on the special status of Jammu and Kashmir had come via litigation against Article 35A of the Indian Constitution in the Supreme Court. Is it true that the challenge to Article 35A is the real reason for his party’s decision to boycott the elections? It seems doubtful as the stated reason of boycott call seems to be a ruse or an excuse to try and shore up the NC’s electoral fortunes.
It also seems like a clever attempt to play politics and force the rival PDP into a corner by forcing it to follow suit. Of course, the PDP acted along predicted lines and also announced a poll boycott call along with the NC. The two arch rivals, the NC and the PDP, now find themselves on the same page as far as boycotting the elections goes. This also has bracketed them with the separatists, who do not take part in electoral politics.
Like the NC, the PDP too has blamed the atmosphere created in the Kashmir Valley in the wake of challenges to Article 35A in the Supreme Court. The PDP has declared that it will go to any extent to safeguard Article 35A, which allows the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to define permanent residents of the state.
It must be said that debates around Article 35A have led to a rise in the political temperatures in the state. Opinions of people vary across regions of the state, with large parts of Jammu and Ladakh being opposed to Article 35A. In the Kashmir Valley, however, a near uniformity has been observed among various sections of the people. Even separatists, who declare time and again that they do not have any faith in the Constitution of India, are strenuously defending an Article inserted into it through a presidential order on 14 May, 1954.
In the Ladakh region, voices in favour or against Article 35A are almost muted, with hardly any leader of some standing making clear his or her stand on the issue. One reason for it could be that Ladakh has remained comparatively aloof from whatever has happened in the past in Jammu or in Kashmir. The most important political demand of Ladakhis have been the grant of Union Territory (UT) status to the entire region. Ladakhis, as such, remain fairly non-committal about airing their views on Article 35A.
It may be noted here that the last panchayat elections were held in 2011 and the term of the office-bearers had ended in mid-2016. The tenures of the ULBs in the state had lapsed much earlier and today, neither are there any panchayats nor are there ULBs in place. On the other hand, elections to the Lok Sabha seats in the state and to the State Legislative Assembly are being held regularly since 1996, over two decades ago.
Think about it carefully. Elections to the state Legislative Assembly were held in 1996, in 2002, in 2008, and then in 2014, more or less on time regularly, at intervals of six years. Similarly, elections for the Lok Sabha constituencies have also been held on time, all this while after every five years. How is it that time and again, when the elections to ULBs or panchayats are to be organised, successive state governments cite the “vitiated atmosphere’’ as the reason for not holding them?
These repeated excuses of the state governments for not holding elections to the grassroots democratic institutions were accepted readily by the central governments earlier. On the one hand, Jammu and Kashmir claims it is the most autonomous of all states of India, but on the other hand, its institutions seem most powerless. This is a strange paradox wherein the state governments deliberately deny all chances of grassroots democracy to flourish.
In fact, if the elections to ULBs and panchayats are held, as scheduled, and these are empowered as per their mandates under 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, there will be a huge inflow of funds to Jammu and Kashmir. The legislators of the state have systematically denied these grassroots democratic institutions their rights. It appears that they believe that the empowerment of these institutions may devalue them.
The funds to both ULBs and the panchayats will accrue from the Centre and not from the state government. The legislators of the state have needlessly been blocking empowerment of the ULBs and the panchayats.
Updated Date: Sep 22, 2018 20:37 PM