After the DDCs are Elected

Significance of the District Development Council polls is not only about the participation of the PAGD but what the grouping will do if It wins a majority

SERIES of tweets by the home minister Amit Shah against People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) terming the alliance pejoratively as “Gupkar Gang” took many people by surprise. More so, when the tweets came in the backdrop of the ongoing campaigning for the District Development Council polls which are scheduled to be held phase-wise from November 28.

Were the tweets an attempt to frame the ongoing electoral battle between the BJP and the Gupkar alliance in terms of the battle between national versus anti-national forces? And if so, why should mere DDC polls which are primarily focused on development issues draw the attention of the home minister of India? The answer to this is not difficult to find: if anything, this reveals the DDC election is no ordinary exercise. The polls have a disproportionately bigger bearing on the situation than their district level standing warrants. The reason for this is the troubled political context surrounding them in the wake of the revocation of Article 370 in August last year.

The election is the first such exercise ever being conducted in J&K. It is also the first to be held following the Article 370 move. But its real significance stems from the participation of the PAGD, an alliance that demands the restoration of Article 370 that granted J&K its semi-autonomous status within Indian Union. And this turns the election into a sort of referendum on the far-reaching move.

With Congress in a seat-sharing arrangement with the PAGD, the parties among themselves constitute almost the entire political mainstream of J&K. And should the alliance win a substantial proportion of the seats including a significant portion of those in Jammu, this will be a resounding vote against the withdrawal of the J&K autonomy.

So the evolving situation in regard to elections is naturally a cause of concern with the BJP and a trigger for the home minister’s anti-PAGD tweets. Losing to what the BJP calls “Gupkar Gang” will be a deeply embarrassing turn of events for the saffron party.

The question, however, is whether the BJP will let such a scenario come about? The party may not like it but then it can’t stop a potential adverse outcome in a free and fair exercise.  It may put hurdles in its way, though.  Already the PAGD and Congress are complaining that their candidates aren’t allowed to campaign for security reasons while as those of the BJP and the Apni Party have a free run.

But such roadblocks would hardly matter in an election where more than the campaigning, the voting may be a volitional act: where people may make a choice  not by weighing which party  might best address their civic issues but to make their opinion heard  about a larger political question: the withdrawal of the former state’s autonomous status. Such a public approach towards the DDC polls doesn’t set much store by the campaigning. The BJP might campaign as much as it wants, the people will vote on the basis of their pent-up frustrations and resentments over the past fifteen months. And this invisible groundswell will benefit the PAGD. Also the Congress which has now officially dissociated from Gupkar group but retains an electoral alliance with it.

Jammu will be key to the PAGD and Congress performance. If the reports of the growing unease in the region over the domicile and land laws are anything to go by, the BJP should be losing Jammu. At the same time, it won’t be easy to ace the BJP out. For so many years now the party has been winning elections as a matter of course, even at places where it should otherwise have been losing. Take for example the recent Bihar elections where the saffron party performed better in places with a large concentration of migrant labourers. These labourers lost their jobs during the ill-advised lockdown imposed by the Modi government early this year and had to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes from their places of work across India. But still the BJP won.

It is, thus, premature to write off the BJP as yet. It is also premature to play down the Hindutva party’s strategy of polarizing the voters to serve its electoral ends.  Going by the home minister’s attack on “Gupkar Gang” and branding them as anti-national, the BJP has already unleashed its favourite weapon.

The PAGD could still be expected to perform well in Jammu’s Muslim dominated areas. And as for the Hindu majority areas, the outcome will depend on whether anxieties about the loss of jobs and land will outweigh a polarizing campaign. Only when all these factors work to the favour of the Gupkar alliance and the Congress, there’s hope that the extended alliance will garner a majority of seats.

But the significance of these elections is not only about the PAGD winning them but what the grouping will do with its victory. Winning will certainly prove that the majority of the people in J&K are against the constitutional changes but the question is whether the DDCs once they are formed will be able and willing to assert this fact – administratively if not politically.

Lapsing into a mundane governance role won’t do for the DDCs run by the PAGD. In the absence of an Assembly election, the DDCs have become mini-assemblies and their role will go beyond planning for development. On their conduct will depend the credibility of the Gupkar amalgam. But for now we can only wait and watch.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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