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
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
STANDIN LINE People outside a polling booth in Srinagar in 2014