By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Results for 278 of the 280 District Development Council (DDC) seats, which went to poll between November 28, 2020, and December 19, 2020, in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) were declared on December 22, 2020. The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an amalgam of five Kashmiri political parties, won 110 seats, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 75 seats; Independent, 50 seats; Indian National Congress, 26 seats; Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP), 12 seats; Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party and Peoples Democratic Front, two seats each and Bahujan Samajwadi Party, one seat.
The PAGD constituents that won DDC seats include Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), 67 seats; Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (JKPDP), 27; Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference (JKPC), eight; Communist Party of India-Marxist, five; and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, three.
All the 278 elected members are scheduled to take oath on December 28.
The first ever DDC elections in the Union Territory of J&K were conducted in eight-phases, between November 28, 2020, and December 19, 2020. The elections were held for 280 seats, but counting for two seats has been stopped on the direction of the State Election Commission. Counting in one constituency in Kupwara (Drugmulla) and one in Bandipora (Hajin-A) will not be carried out due to some technical issues. “The counting has been deferred till further orders and the ballot boxes shall remain in a strong room under proper protection”, an official letter read.
Remarkably, the elections were free of violence, despite attempts by Pakistan controlled terrorists to derail the electoral process, targeting grassroot level political leaders/workers before the start of the process. The notification for the first phase was issued on November 5, 2020, and at least 10 political leaders/cadres of various political parties, including eight from the BJP alone, were killed between June and October 2020.
Further, despite the targeted violence against political leaders/workers and threats to the general population, the overall percentage of voting across J&K was reported to be 51.2 per cent. While the Jammu Division recorded 68.4 per cent voting, the Kashmir Division saw a 34 per cent turnout. Though the voting percentage remained low in the Kashmir Division, it did improve in comparison to General Elections 2019, when the Kashmir Division recorded just 19.2 per cent voting.
Moreover, though there were claims from the opposition that they were not allowed to campaign freely, there were no allegations of rigging or other malpractices during the electoral process.
All the political parties and winning independent candidates welcomed the results, claiming that the mandate was in their favor. JKNC Vice President and former Chief Minister of J&K Omar Abdullah whose party, and the alliance, had made restoration of Article 370 the principal element of their election agenda, asserted, on December 23, “the people of J&K have said it with a huge majority that they do not accept (the decisions of) August 5, 2019.” JKPDP President Mehbooba Mufti asserted that DDC results have made it clear that people of J&K voted en masse for the PAGD “thus rejecting the unconstitutional decision to abrogate Article 370.” She claimed that people have overwhelming supported PAGD “which stands for restoration of J&Ks special status.” JKAP Senior Vice President Ghulam Hassan Mir declared, “We have won these elections purely on developmental agenda as our party does not believe in hollow and misleading slogans.” He observed that the DDC elections completed the third tier of the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Raj Act, which meant that a grassroots level democratic set for an overall development of the people had been established. The two winning candidates of the PDF asserted that development issues were on their agenda.
Safina Beigh, the wife of former deputy chief minister Muzafar Hussain Beigh, who won as an independent, stated, “the elections are the answer from my voters that they are for strengthening democracy and Kashmiris can’t be only be seen as stone-pelters.” Several of the other independent candidates were of the same opinion that development was their main agenda.
Significantly, along with the Elections for 280 DDC seats, elections for 12,153 Panch constituencies; 1,088 Panchayat Halqas, and 234 Municipal Bodies, which had fallen vacant due to several reasons like death, resignation, etc., were also held during the same period. The last Municipal Bodies elections had been held in September-October 2018 and the last Panchayat polls were held in November-December 2018. In between, Block Development Council Elections had been held in October 2019. Thus, the democratic infrastructure at the local bodies level has been established.
It is pertinent to recall here that, after the August 5, 2019, constitutional amendments, the then existing State Assembly of J&K ceased to exist, bringing an abrupt end to the democratic set up at the State-level. In this situation, democratically elected members of the local bodies comprising of Panchayats, Municipal Corporations/Councils/Committees and Block Development Councils, have remained the only democratic political mechanism through which the voice of the people in the Union Territory could reach to the Union Government.
Indeed, on December 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted that “the three-tier Panchayati Raj system has been established in Jammu and Kashmir within a short period of it becoming a UT [Union Territory].” Asserting that, in these elections, the people of J&K had voted for “strengthening roots of democracy in J&K” he emphasized that “people, even from other political parties, say the elections were free and transparent.”
While all this augur well for the future of the restoration of the democracy at the higher level, attempts to exploit political gamesmanship to undermine the mandate given by the people who participated in the DDC elections have already been initiated and are likely to prove detrimental in the long run.
According to the election results, the PAGD with the help of INC would control 12 DDCs (nine in Kashmir Division and three in Jammu Division) out of the total 20 DDCs, while the BJP would secure a majority in five DDCs (all in the Jammu Division). The situation in the remaining three DDCs (two in Jammu Division and one in Kashmir Division) remains fluid.
However, in a pattern of manipulation that has become common to the post-election scenario where the BJP fails to secure clear majorities, allegations of horse trading to change the equations in DDCs in J&K have now surfaced. Omar Abdullah asserted,
PAGD won most of the seats; why cannot the BJP, the Apni Party, the Centre and the administration accept it? We want to tell them ‘stop playing with democracy’. Who knows where all it can lead if it is not stopped now?
Mehbooba Mufti in a tweet alleged,
BJP & its proxies are sore losers and have resorted to abducting Independents who won DDC elections. They are shamelessly using all means to increase their tally. This isn’t dance but death of democracy in J&K.
It is widely believed across J&K’s political spectrum that JKAP, which was floated in August 2019 soon after the abrogation of Article 370 with the BJP’s blessings, was intended to create an alternative to the traditional parties of J&K.
Meanwhile, reacting to the allegations of horse trading, Altaf Bukhari, JKAP President, in an interview published on December 26, countered with the allegation that a winning JKAP-fielded independent candidate from Srinagar had then joined JKNC. He asserted, “They started this game and I will end it, and the end can very well be the depletion of their (PAGD) 70 winning candidates.” He claimed that 21 independent candidates who won the DDC polls were “with the Apni Partry” and more independent candidates and DDC seat winners from the PAGD were set to join him in the following days. Bukhari argued,
We are sure of having DDC chairperson in at least two districts in Jammu where there are many winners interested in joining us. In Kashmir we will be able to have DDC chairpersons in at least 4-5 districts. We won’t be satisfied with anything less… The PAGD struggled to get candidates. They didn’t have many people, so they fielded anyone and everyone. These people were available, now they are deciding as per their choice to join the Apni Party. No one is forcing them… The same is in the case of independents.
According to the JKAP, four DDC winners (three from Shopian and one from Srinagar) have, so far, joined the party. These included two independents and one each from JKPDP and JKNC.
Whatever be the truth, every attempt at horse trading can only diminish faith in the democratic process, and will potentially feed resentment and instability in the Union Territory.
Despite facing several odds, the people of J&K have come out and participated in the electoral process. If their mandate is undermined by manipulation, this would only feed into the extremist narrative, wasting an opportunity to move towards the restoration of normalcy in the Union Territory, and augmenting the potential for violent exploitation by Pakistan-backed terrorist formations.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management