Kashmir polls: The new realities
By: KHALID SHAH
The recent Urban Local Body (ULB) polls in Jammu and Kashmir have manifested two diametrically opposite realities of the State. One, the enthusiasm for democracy and elections is at an all-time high in Jammu and Ladakh regions. Two, the people of Kashmir valley have shown low confidence in the election process. Leh and Kargil recorded 62% polling and the Jammu region recorded 69% polling. In the Kashmir Valley, the overall polling percentage remained at a low 4.3%. On the surface, the polling data shows Kashmir valley has shown minimal enthusiasm towards the election while the disaggregated data of various districts reflects a slight nuance. It is also important to note that two important regional parties, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, had also boycotted the elections.
The lowest turnout in the valley was recorded from the districts with the highest level of militancy. Only 660 votes, 1.2 % of the total votes, were cast in South Kashmir districts. Seventeen municipal committees of the South Kashmir region witnessed no elections, as some of the wards didn’t have a single contesting candidate and in other wards, there was only one unopposed candidate. In Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam districts of the South Kashmir, there was zero polling as all the wards went uncontested. South Kashmir is the epicentre of the militancy in Kashmir and the threat of attacks by militants coerced people from contesting the elections and coming out to vote. The statistics show us that political alienation is at the highest peak in these districts which correlates with the levels of violence. South Kashmir is also a stronghold of the PDP and its boycott has definitely played a role in the low turnout.
Zone Polling percentage Kashmir 4.3 Leh & Kargil 62.1 Jammu 68.7 Total 35.1 Region wise polling percentage Central Kashmir Region 5.1 North Kashmir Region 16.2 South Kashmir Region 1.6
In the Central Kashmir region, which includes Budgam, Srinagar and Ganderbal districts, the polling percentage was five percent. Five municipal committees in the Budgam district witnessed no polling as candidates were elected unopposed except Beerwah which didn’t have a single contesting candidate. Despite that, the Budgam and Ganderbal district witnessed 17% and 10% polling respectively whereas Srinagar witnessed only three percent polling. The overall polling percentage in the Central Kashmir is higher; the number of uncontested municipal committees is lesser and so is the number of vacant wards. All the three districts of Central Kashmir have lesser influence of militancy in comparison to the South Kashmir region and thus the polling numbers are better than the districts of South Kashmir. Ganderbal is the bastion of the National Conference where all three Abdullahs -- Sheikh Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah -- have contested elections. Similarly, the Budgam and Srinagar districts are also the strongholds of the National Conference and the non-participation of the party has severely affected the polling numbers. Assuming both the National Conference and the PDP would have drawn only 10 -20% (in the worst case scenario) of their loyal voters, the polling numbers would have been much higher and made the election look like any normal election of the State. Beerwah, where all wards of the municipal committee, except one, have gone vacant, is the incumbent assembly seat of former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. This sparks a question: would the municipal committee have remained vacant in case the former CM’s party had contested the election?
Coming to the North Kashmir region, this is where all the gloom and doom seems to have failed. The results in North Kashmir must have also triggered immense nervousness within the NC and the PDP and both parties reconsider the decision of boycotting upcoming parliament and assembly polls. The total polling percentage in the North Kashmir region was 16.2%. Again, assuming that the NC and the PDP would have gained only 10-20% of their loyal vote base, the scenario would have been totally different. Notwithstanding, the polling statistics show that the election in North Kashmir was largely normal with minor aberrations. Handwara and Kupwara witnessed 24% and 36% polling respectively. Both areas are strongholds of Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference and the party’s participation coupled with low level of violence and militancy seems to have enthused confidence in the voters. In this region, Baramulla polled 14% votes, Bandipora 13% and Sopore 3%. Both the NC and the PDP have a strong vote base in Baramulla and Bandipora along with other smaller parties and again the non-participation of the parties is a big factor. In the Baramulla district, the Uri Municipal Committee polled 75% votes while Sopore has historically boycotted elections.
All the three regions of the Kashmir valley have shown varying trends which have gone largely unnoticed in the cacophony on the negative aspects of these elections. While 184 of the total 598 municipal wards are vacant, an important point that has been brushed under the carpet is that most of these vacant wards are of the most militancy-infested areas of South and North Kashmir. Would the number of candidates go up in case of the participation of the two main parties of Kashmir region? Perhaps, the PDP and the NC also have to introspect whether the scenario would have been similar if they had participated in the polls. If the leaders of the PDP and the NC think that the boycott has made no difference to this election – that the participation of the two parties would not have spiked the voter turnout by 15-20% -- then perhaps it is time for both parties to shut shop.
Having miscalculated on boycotting the polls, both parties have ceded important municipal committees to the BJP, the Congress and the People’s Conference.
The victorious candidates, irrespective of whether they won unopposed or polled very low votes, will hold office for a full term. Farooq Abdullah represents the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency after winning the by-poll which witnessed only seven percent polling. In future, both parties will have to navigate these municipal committees for the deliverance of governance. If some of the winning candidates of this election perform well, deliver governance and manage to win people’s confidence, the political scenario of Kashmir valley will change drastically.
Also, the boycott by the PDP and the NC should serve a lesson to the BJP and its government in New Delhi. Arm twisting and aggressive mishandling of these two parties is detrimental to the national interest – the sooner the BJP realises it the better. Both parties are a power to reckon with and it would be utterly foolish on the part of the BJP to further alienate these parties of a sensitive State like Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmir managers of the Central Government and the BJP will have to once again reconsider their priorities and make sure their ill-conceived moves don’t add further fuel to the fire.
Another factor that has gone totally unnoticed is that a young crop of leaders has placed their confidence in elections, risking the wrath of militants, separatists and in fact the two major political parties of the State.
They see elections as the only way to serve the people and bring about a change in the State. This is perhaps the most positive takeaway from this election of negativities. Over the year, a large number of young people in the age group of 25-40 have joined the mainstream parties. More and more youth of this age group are choosing mainstream politics over separatist groups in which they see no future. In fact, if the NC and the PDP had contested the elections, a new wave of young leaders of both parties would have emerged on the political scene. By boycotting the elections, these parties have betrayed the aspirations of the young leaders who were eagerly waiting to make a mark in the politics of Kashmir valley. Perhaps that partly explains why Farooq Abdullah, called for the boycott of the municipal elections. The old stalwarts fear the rise of the young turks.