J&K: POLLS IN PERIL

The Cen­tre’s plan to hold lo­cal body polls in the trou­bled state faces a set­back with ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties pulling out

India Today - - STATES - By Asit Jolly and Moazum Mo­ham­mad

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s In­de­pen­dence Day prom­ise of hold­ing pan­chayat elec­tions in strife-torn Jammu & Kash­mir could be a tough one to keep. With the Val­ley’s two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties—the Na­tional Con­fer­ence and the Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Party—opt­ing out of the process, it will be dif­fi­cult for new gov­er­nor, Satya Pal Ma­lik, to push ahead with Delhi’s de­ci­sion.

Both NC pres­i­dent Fa­rooq Ab­dul­lah and PDP chief Me­hbooba Mufti have said they were boy­cotting the elec­tions un­til the Cen­tre clar­i­fied its po­si­tion on Ar­ti­cle 35-A. The state sub­ject law that gives J&K cit­i­zens spe­cial rights and priv­i­leges and bars out­siders from buy­ing prop­erty or get­ting gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ment, is cur­rently be­ing chal­lenged in the Supreme Court. And while the Cen­tre has adopted a non­com­mit­tal po­si­tion on its con­sti­tu­tional va­lid­ity, the state, un­der gov­er­nor’s rule since the fall of the PDP-BJP gov­ern­ment in June, has cited the pan­chayat and lo­cal body elec­tions to seek a de­fer­ment of hear­ings in the case.

While the pre­vail­ing uncer­tainty over 35-A and re­lated con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions, in­clud­ing Ar­ti­cle 370, is a con­cern, the Val­ley has also been spooked by the loom­ing mil­i­tant threat. Hizbul Mu­jahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo has re­it­er­ated his threat about burn­ing can­di­dates with “acid”. The Hur­riyat sep­a­ratists,

fear­ing that Delhi would project the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Kash­miris as a vote for In­dia, have also called for a boy­cott.

Ajaz Ah­mad Mir, the PDP leg­is­la­tor from Wachi in the south­ern Shopian dis­trict, points out that the mere an­nounce­ment of the poll sched­ule on Au­gust 31 trig­gered a pan­icked ex­o­dus of party work­ers from their vil­lages. A for­mer sarpanch him­self, Mir says “it is im­pos­si­ble to hold elec­tions in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion... no­body will par­tic­i­pate”.

Be­sides the mil­i­tant threat, for­mer pan­chayat mem­bers like Maulvi Maq­bool Mir of Budgam’s Zoogu vil­lage say it is the “be­trayal” af­ter the 2011 pan­chayat polls that now dis­cour­ages as­pi­rants. Suc­ces­sive state gov­ern­ments, says the 40-year-old ex-sarpanch, starved pan­chay­ats of funds, even deny­ing mem­bers salaries for the first two years. The dis­il­lu­sion­ment runs just as deep amid erst­while mu­nic­i­pal body mem­bers. Srinagar’s ex-mayor Sal­man Sa­gar says coun­cil­lors were al­lo­cated a measly Rs 5 lakh a year each for works in their re­spec­tive wards.

Last month, the gov­er­nor had rather con­fi­dently an­nounced the sched­ule for elec­tions to 79 mu­nic­i­pal bod­ies and 4,450 pan­chay­ats in J&K. Elec­tions were slated in phases between Oc­to­ber 1 and De­cem­ber 4. Much of Ma­lik’s con­fi­dence was premised on a cur­tail­ing of the un­rest. There were just 127 in­ci­dents of stone pelt­ing in the two months af­ter gov­er­nor’s rule was pro­claimed in the state on June 20.

Prepa­ra­tions are al­ready un­der way for the polls. Some 25,000 bal­lot boxes for the pan­chayat polls have been trans­ported to Jammu and Srinagar from Haryana, and EVMs have been despatched to all dis­trict head­quar­ters for the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions.

But with the NC-PDP pull­out, the for­mal no­ti­fi­ca­tion for fil­ing of nom­i­na­tions has been in­ex­pli­ca­bly de­layed. Chief elec­toral of­fi­cer Shaleen Kabra, how­ever, says this will be done shortly.

On the ground, the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment is also at work to try and en­sure that the polls are peace­ful. Be­sides the boots al­ready in the Val­ley, the 235 CAPF (cen­tral armed po­lice force) com­pa­nies brought in for the Amar­nath ya­tra have been re­tained to se­cure the elec­tions. Lt Gen. A.K. Bhatt, the gen­eral of­fi­cer com­mand­ing of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, says his “ef­fort will be to main­tain peace”.

But last year’s ex­pe­ri­ence—largescale vi­o­lence and a his­tor­i­cally low voter turnout (7.14 per cent) in the Srinagar Lok Sabha by­elec­tion—doesn’t in­spire much con­fi­dence.

The poll sched­ule no­tice alone saw a pan­icked ex­o­dus of party work­ers

ABID BHAT

STANDIN LINE Peo­ple out­side a polling booth in Srinagar in 2014

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