Another election farce – Frontline
IN restive Kashmir, the elections to the urban local bodies are not the best gauge of people’s sentiment towards New Delhi. That was already known in April last year when 93 per cent of the electorate kept away from the Srinagar byelection as though to indict the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government for all that it had come to represent in the Valley: high-handedness in quelling civilian protests, refusal to hold talks, and a complicit silence over Article 35A. But the latest rejection of the electoral exercise telegraphs a more worrying message: that the space for the mainstream needs to be rebuilt from scratch.
Jammu and Kashmir has 79 municipal bodies—two municipal corporations, six municipal councils and 71 municipal committees. Elections to these were held after 13 years in four phases—October 8, 10, 13 and 16. The reception was tepid throughout the Valley, bred by the Centre’s “muscular policy” and the continuing threat of militants, who have been only too willing to pull the trigger.
The turnout hovered between 3 and 8 per cent in Kashmir. The voters were more often than not the immediate family or relatives of the contestants, and were, in many polling booths, outnumbered by security personnel. Ominous indicators of the poor turnout had been coming. By the time the last date of withdrawal of nominations ended on October 5, as many as 244 candidates had won unopposed (231 in Kashmir and 13 in Jammu); 70 of them were from the BJP, hitherto a non-entity in Kashmir.
Tanveer Sadiq of the National Conference (N.C.), which stayed away from the hustings along with arch-rival the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), feels the BJP’s unmerited advances in the Valley will further dent people’s trust in democracy. “Democracy is about participation, not election. When the N.C. and the PDP, which together command the majority of MLAs in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, were not in favour of holding elections, what was the utility of this exercise?” Sadiq asked while talking to Frontline.
Of the BJP’s 70 unopposed winners, 58 are from the hotbed of militancy, Kulgam, Shopian, Anantnag and Pulwama districts in south Kashmir, where, ordinarily, a BJP affiliate would not dare set foot for the fear of reprisal for the party’s toxic Hindutva politics. The saffron party was leading in seven municipal bodies, six of them in south Kashmir—Shopian, Qazigund, Devsar, Pahalgam, Ashmuqam and Tral. It was also leading in Sopore in north Kashmir.
In Kashmir, the BJP fielded 325 candidates in 598 municipal seats; 36 of them were migrant Kashmiri Pandits settled in Jammu. According to reports published in local newspapers, the Kashmiri Pandit candidates flew to the Valley to file their nomination papers and returned without canvassing. Altaf Thakur, spokesperson for the BJP’s Kashmir unit, however, assured the media that they would “return to the Valley and work for the development of their respective wards”.
Khalid Gul, a reporter of Greater Kashmir, who travelled across Anantnag on the polling days, described the election as an “enactment of a farce”. “There were only a handful of voters in most polling stations in Islamabad [local people refer to Anantnag as Islamabad], escorted by the candidates themselves in armoured SUVs. They hurriedly cast their votes and fled from the scene,” he told Frontline.
A reporter from Baramulla, which saw a turnout of 5.1 per cent in the first phase of elections on October 8, presented a dull and drab picture of the election day. “It seemed like a curfew, with no human soul in sight in the city’s deserted streets. The few who had come [to the polling booths] had covered their faces; men with their hands and women with their dupattas. Before they got out of their cars, they signalled to the policemen to shoo away photojournalists.”
The reporter came across some elderly voters, presumably in their late 70s, who had little idea of what was going on. “They had been brought by the contestants, perhaps by offering them money,” the reporter guessed. “These old men did not know whether the election was to the civic bodies or to the State Assembly. They only knew the names of the candidates whom they had been asked to vote for.”
On October 5, three days before the first phase of polling, militants shot dead two N.C. workers, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani and Nazir Ahmad Bhat, in Srinagar.
In February, Riyaz Naikoo of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s most dreaded militant, had released an audio clip threatening candidates of acid attack. Abdul Gani Dar and Shabir Ahmad Wani of the PDP, Gowhar Ahmad Bhat and Shabir Bhat of the BJP, and the senior politician G.N. Patel were a few names on the list.
Frontline had published a ground report detailing the plight of the political workers who had moved to safer havens in Srinagar and were refusing to canvass for their respective parties (“Distrust in the Valley”, October 26). It is this handicap that forced the PDP and the N.C. not to enter the election fray, although, officially, both parties maintain that the Centre’s unwillingness to allay the fears surrounding Jammu and Kashmir’s special status incluenced their decision.
The Congress, which like the BJP participated in the election, was unable to find candidates for several wards in Sopore, an Assembly seat held by its leader Abdul Rashid Dar. There were no candidates in 177 wards across the Valley. Srinagar was the only place where the usual pace of electioneering was somewhat noticeable—300 candidates tried their luck in 74 wards. In one of the wards in old Srinagar city, a former militant, Farooq Ahmad Khan, alias Saifullah, surprised all by deciding to contest on the BJP ticket.
“There is an unsaid peer pressure not to vote,” said reporters across Kashmir, while speaking to Frontline. “People who voted did so in the wee hours; in the daytime the polling booths looked like guarded fortresses with security personnel all around but no voters.”
Two days ahead of the first phase of the elections, a gaffe by Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik created much controversy. In an interview to a news channel, Malik said a “foreign educated candidate” is likely to become the new Mayor of Srinagar. He was alluding to Junaid Azim Mattu, former N.C. leader who had abandoned the Omar Abdullah-led party to run as an independent candidate. When this reporter contacted Mattu for comment, he excused himself saying he was in a meeting. Further calls made to his personal mobile number were neither received nor returned.
The N.C. was quick to condemn Malik. “Malik’s recent remark favouring a particular individual for the post of Mayor of Srinagar is shocking and puts a big question mark on the impartiality of the Governor’s office. The election process is a smokescreen to hide [the] machinations of the Governor’s office to throttle democratic institutions…. The way [the] Governor has unequivocally expressed his intentions… hinting towards a particular individual… is what casts a shadow on the whole election process,” the party’s leaders said in a joint statement issued to the media.
Srinagar’s political circles are agog with whispers that some independent candidates were handpicked by New Delhi. Informed sources told Frontline that the list included “some young activists who operate NGOs in Srinagar”. “The BJP wants to tighten its grip on the administration; many independents are in fact proxies of the BJP who have received ‘support’ from the party to run for office,” said an informed source.
After the debacle in the first phase, which witnessed 8.3 per cent polling in the Kashmir Valley, the State’s Chief Electoral Officer, Shaleen Kabra, announced that voting for the remaining three phases on October 10, 13 and 16 would begin from 6 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. Political analysts feel the move was aimed at enabling people to vote before daybreak and escape scrutiny. It did not yield much, though; the turnout plummeted to 3.4 per cent in the Valley in the second phase.
In the third phase, held shortly after security forces gunned down a popular PhD scholar-turned-militant Mannan Wani in Handwara, triggering an outpour of sympathy for him in the Valley, 3.49 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote. In Srinagar, where people were barred by the administration from holding Friday prayers at the Jama Masjid, in view of a shutdown call by separatists, the turnout stood at 1.8 per cent—in the Safakadal ward, three out of 9,062 votes were cast; in Chanapora, eight out of 10,000, reported local newspapers. In the fourth phase on October 16, the turnout in Kashmir stood at a dismal 4.2 per cent.
For those who voted, the motivation was personal. A senior journalist with Kashmir Life, Shams Irfan, recalled his meeting with a voter, Sahil, 22, at a polling booth in the Maqdoom Sahib area of Srinagar, during the third phase. “Sahil had no qualms about admitting that he had come to vote for the independent candidate Mohammad Yasin Churisaaz as the latter had helped him secure a job in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation,” Irfan told Frontline.
Across the Peer Panjal range, the voting showed a pattern, indicating Jammu’s aspiration for greater integration with India that runs counter to the struggle for autonomy in Kashmir. The turnout in Jammu in the first, second and third phases of the elections were 65, 78.6 and 81.4 per cent respectively. The overall turnout for the State in all four phases was 35.1 per cent.
Political observers writing on the situation in Kashmir feel it is time New Delhi worked to ensure a semblance of normalcy on the ground. That would require scuttling any attempt to dilute Jammu and Kashmir’s special status or instal a puppet government in the State by encouraging defection from rival parties. For the BJP, that is a big temptation to resist.