Jammu and Kashmir panchayat polls spark political slugfest; parties set to field proxy candidates to test electoral mood

Jammu and Kashmir: Its raining elections in the state. Scheduled later this year are the urban local bodies and panchayat polls. The governor may well also dissolve the Assembly, currently in limbo, which would mean fresh Assembly elections as well. And of course, the Lok Sabha polls are scheduled for May next year.

And though the local bodies' elections will not be fought on a party basis, given that most candidates will be proxies of the main parties – the PDP, National Conference, Congress and BJP – it will indicate the level of support each has before the 'big fight'.

As Shafiq Mir, chairman of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference said: "Though these polls are more social than political in nature, political parties do field proxy candidates."

 Jammu and Kashmir panchayat polls spark political slugfest; parties set to field proxy candidates to test electoral mood

BJP's panchayat meeting in Jammu and Kashmir. Image courtesy Arjun Sharma

The main battles will inevitably be in the Valley and Jammu, and it'll be the first test of their standing with the electorate for both the BJP and PDP – since their split, with the state coming under Governor's Rule, on 19 June. Both parties have lost ground in their respective strongholds. The BJP, in particular, faces the ire of the Jammu electorate, who feel the party has failed to highlight the discrimination of the region during its three-year reign with the PDP.

Most party leaders, however, feel that the Assembly elections should have been held before the local bodies' elections. But, Governor NN Vohra has cleared the decks for local polls, including clearing an amendment by which the sarpanch will now be elected directly by the voters and not by the elected panch, as favoured by the BJP-PDP.

An official spokesperson of the Raj Bhawan said that the measure will restore the primacy and importance of the sarpanch, giving the post the necessary legitimacy to be able to discharge various functions.

Earlier called off by Mehbooba govt

All parties have begun preparations, calling on their cadre to step up poll activities. Addressing a convention of Congress workers in Jammu, Sham Lal Sharma, former minister and senior Congress leader, said, "... people of Jammu are fed up with the lies of BJP and its promises of development in Jammu have been exposed. People of the region will teach the PDP and BJP a lesson as discrimination with Jammu exceeded all limits during their rule."

There are 78 urban local bodies that include Jammu Municipal Corporation and Srinagar Municipal Corporation, 70 Municipal Committees and six Municipal Councils in the state. Elections to urban local bodies have been due since 2010, while polls to panchayats are due since 2016.

A total of 4,082 sarpanch posts and 28,253 panch posts were filled in 2011, with an average voter turnout of about 77.71 percent. The current round of polls was earlier scheduled in February this year but was called off by the Mehbooba Mufti-led government, citing an adverse security situation. But the governor, on 19 July, had constituted State and Divisional Level Committees to conduct preparatory work for the elections.

The political slugfest has begun, and even as Congress leaders attacked the BJP for its failure to implement promises, the BJP has begun its own preparations by constituting panels of potential candidates. The party has set up a new team that includes vice-presidents, general secretaries, state secretaries and its IT and social media cell.

BJP is trying hard to woo the Hindu-dominated Jammu. The region had drifted apart from the saffron party during its three years of rule with the PDP, mainly due to the BJP’s failure to end the perceived discrimination of the region.

File image of Congress' Sham lal Sharma. Image courtesy Arjun Sharma

File image of Congress' Sham Lal Sharma. Image courtesy Arjun Sharma

PDP, BJP at a disadvantage

In a meeting of newly appointed state office bearers, which was attended by the minister of state in the PMO, Dr Jatinder Singh, Lok Sabha member Jugal Kishore Sharma and MP (Rajya Sabha) Shamsher Singh Manhas, the BJP discussed its poll prospects.

Singh told party leaders that, "BJP must perform well in the polls as the nation's eyes are on the happenings in Jammu and Kashmir". BJP leaders have asked their elections in-charges to keep in mind the personal integrity of candidates.

The PDP (which won 28 seats in the last Assembly elections) is attempting to regain lost ground among the Valley electorate, where its popularity dipped when it allied with the BJP. PDP chief and former chief minister Mufti has, in recent times, made statements aimed at appeasing Pakistan-backed separatists in Kashmir and pleasing the Valley voters.

"The Recent ban of over 30 TV channels on account of threatening peace in Jammu and Kashmir is questionable,” wrote Mehbooba on Twitter. The 30 channels – telecast mainly from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – it was felt, were peddling propaganda against India and some religious communities. The National Conference too is working to gear up its cadre.

Jammu-based political commentator Professor Hari Om echoed the general sentiment, that the PDP and BJP are at a disadvantage. "While political parties may take different postures to keep their vote bank intact, some political leaders do not want the panchayat polls to be held," he said.

"Though conditions in Jammu and Ladakh region are not volatile, an impression was given to the world as if the whole state is a disturbed area and thus a narrative was peddled that in such situation, polls should not be held."

The author is a Jammu-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Updated Date: Jul 26, 2018 17:25:27 IST