Panchayat By-Polls

Days after announcing the Panchayat by-polls, the Election Commission has deferred the polls in the Union Territory. The commission said it was advised by the J&K home department to do so. The EC had announced by-elections for 11,639 vacant panchayat seats, to be held in eight phases from March 5 to 20. It would have been the first democratic exercise to be held in the Valley following the nullification of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 which granted J&K its autonomy under constitution. However, unlike the previous panchayat polls, which were held on a non-party basis in October-November in 2018, the by-elections were to be contested on party basis. Also instead of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the Election Commission was to use ballot papers and for Kashmiri migrants, postal ballot were to be made available.

The elections were being held even as the top leadership of the major regional parties, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) remain under detention. This includes three former Chief Ministers - Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. In 2018, the NC and PDP had stayed away from the polls in protest against centre’s refusal to assure them that it had no plans to abrogate Article 370. This did impact turnout of voters as people also heeded the call for boycott of the exercise by the separatist groups.

This time around the main regional parties like the NC, PDP, and the Congress were reluctant to participate. Among the parties, the PDP had already distanced itself from the exercise, saying it was not possible for it to take part in the absence of the party’s president Mehbooba and the other senior leaders.

The NC which had initially also declined to participate was mulling participation. In a U-turn, the party had later agreed to take part if certain “roadblocks” were removed. The party had said it is a strong votary of democratic process but wanted a level playing field where all parties were facilitated to participate and not a select few or the BJP alone.

Similarly, the Congress had made its participation conditional on the government releasing all its leaders and letting them campaign and hold political activity. State Congress president G A Mir had also objected to holding panchayat by-polls on party basis when the main election was held on non-party basis.

The situation was still evolving and it wasn't clear yet whether the NC, PDP and the Congress would eventually have taken part in the exercise. However, the government decision to defer polls is welcome. But as and when the exercise is held in future, government should help create a conducive environment for a smooth conduct of the exercise. For Panchayat by-polls to be truly representative it should be the effort of the government to ensure all parties participate. And this can be made possible only if their leaders are freed and allowed to connect with people and campaign freely.

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