Simplistic inferences lead to wrong conclusions
Peoples’ participation in the just concluded Urban Local Bodies and Panchayat elections has once again surprised many – though political realists had anticipated it to be so. Given that the separatists had called for boycott and their calls were endorsed by a wider cross-section, including the vocal civil society actors, the people choosing to cast votes certainly poses many more questions than most people would like to engage with, and answer.
How does one look at these elections, at least in terms of people’s participation despite calls for boycott? Is it an attestation of what New Delhi and its media want to believe it is – “a big no to separatist politics in Kashmir”? Does it signal people’s departure from the sentiment; “betrayal with the people’s sacrifices” of past three decades, as some pro-boycott lobbyists think it is?
Actually it is neither. People have not abandoned the “sentiment” by participating in elections, nor are they trying to put a seal of approval on the political status quo that Delhi feels comfortable with, and wants to perpetuate here. Indeed both streams of opinion – those who think in ‘either or’ terms vis-a-vis people’s participation or otherwise in the elections make a mortal mistake of over-simplifying it.
People are certainly not happy with the separatists for their failure in evolving with a viable road-map for taking, in their own words, the “movement to the logical conclusion”. They are, at the same time, not comfortable with the continued status quo via-a-vis the disputed nature of Kashmir, as also with a multitude of other minute rows and clashes that make Kashmir one of the most protracted and complex conflicts – at least at two different levels – between India and Pakistan, and between Srinagar and New Delhi – if only other intra-state dimensions are overlooked for the time being. So people’s participation is in no way ratification or otherwise of the simplistic inferences deduced by varied actors as per their own conveniences.
Then how does one explain it. The scenes of people queuing up outside the polling stations despite winter chill and calls for boycott by the separatists are actually a vivid demonstration of emotional starvation of people for a place in Kashmir, and its politics. It is their urge for participation in the politics concerning them – howsoever minimal the electoral democracy may offer them. It is a statement that “we the people” also matter; and that “those who get to represent us do in some measure require our support and endorsement.” It is a loud expression that people want empowerment. Elections do empower them -- though briefly and with all its inherent faults – so much so that people can influence who gets to represent and rule them, who gets to decide the matters concerning their roads and streets and irrigation canals and other primary needs. All said and done, the separatist politics has failed in giving this ‘ownership’ to the people, even though ideally speaking, it should have given people far more space than what the electoral democracy of mainstream politics allows and accords them.
“If people are organized with a dream of future ahead of them, the actual planning that takes place in organizing and the hopes and the fears for the future give them just as much inner satisfaction as does their actual achievement.” This is something that the elections do, and which, how-so-much one may disagree, the politics of election boycotts has neither aimed to achieve, nor has been able to reach. The kind of participation that elections provide, right from planning, getting together to campaign for or against any candidate, and then fighting together to make someone win or lose an election, completely changes the average Kashmiri, who until the elections so aimlessly treads the “dull, gray, monotonous road of existence”.
Elections are basically about people’s participation – they are about working by and with the people, even if in the kind of politics that is practiced here, it is, unfortunately, not always about working for them. Elections, though very briefly, break down the feeling of the people about them being social automations with no stake in the future. It rather makes them feel like “human beings in possession of all the responsibility, strength, and human dignity which constitute the heritage of free citizens of a democracy.”