Battle for DDCs


 KO Photo: Abid Bhat

The election will broadly determine and define the contours of the post-Article 370 politics of J&K

THE way the BJP has gone about the ongoing District Development Council polls in J&K, the exercise for the party seems no less important than an Assembly election. The major BJP leaders have been deployed to the region to campaign – Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Shahnawaz Khan, Smriti Irani, Anurag Thakur have travelled far and wide to address election rallies. The home minister Amit Shah has also weighed in by framing the election as a battle between nationalist and anti-national forces, the BJP’s favourite electoral trope. He called the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD)  “a gang”, a label that is since being reiterated by other BJP leaders.

On the other hand, the PAGD has accused the administration of preventing its candidates from campaigning. The PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti has tweeted videos of her being barred from leaving her house to campaign.

This offers a telling glimpse of the post-Article 370 Kashmir. The DDCs have been introduced to create a new elected system of governance at the district level. But far from strengthening the grassroots governance the arrangement is out to dilute the powers of the  Panchayats and Block Development Councils (BDCs).   Also, given the way they have been constituted, the DDCs are certain to undermine the authority of a future Assembly too.

Being directly elected, the DDCs are required to exercise the complete authority over the district. This makes them like mini-assemblies. And going by the number of the districts, there will be twenty of them in J&K.  The party which controls them will control the union territory.  It wouldn’t matter much which party controls the Assembly, considering the fact that an MLA will have no sway over a DDC, despite being its member. The new rules have given him no role in the election of the DDC chairperson and vice chairperson or in their removal. The divergence will be starker when the MLA and the DDC chairperson are from different parties. They will, in all likelihood, work at cross-purposes.

True, the DDCs are supposed to be development centered but this in no way shall detract from their conspicuous political function. A party or an alliance that wins the majority of the DDCs will see it as a vote for its political ideology, much like the party in an absolute majority in the Assembly would. The DDCs are also electorally more important as its members will be more closely in touch with their constituents.and in a better position to address their grievances. So, a party not in control of the majority of the DDCs will find it exceedingly difficult to dominate the Assembly.

As far as the mainstream politics, contesting and winning the DDC polls will thus be a pre-requisite to making a mark in an Assembly election. This should explain the PAGD’s decision to take part in the ongoing exercise, ignoring a significant section of opinion in the Valley that would have wanted the grouping to boycott. And this should also explain why the BJP is deploying all its resources to corner a larger share of the DDCs.

Much is at stake – again in the realm of the mainstream politics. This politics operates within a pro-India framework.  Expecting boycott from the PAGD is to apply a yardstick reserved for the separatist struggle. In the worldview of mainstream parties, boycotting an election enables the other parties – in this case the BJP –  to poach upon their workers and as a consequence erode their support base. This, in turn, is believed to weaken the cause the mainstream politicians stand for. Mehbooba Mufti said as much in his recent interview to a newspaper. So did Sajad Lone, another top PAGD leader.

The significance of the DDC polls, at the same time, is also beyond the boycott debate. Being the first election to be held following the repeal of Article 370, it has become a veritable popular referendum on big political questions about the region.

Kashmir based major regional parties who oppose erasure of J&K autonomy have banded together to take on the BJP. This has made the election into a contest between the BJP that repealed the autonomy and the PAGD that wants it restored. This includes the Congress which is in a loose seat-sharing alliance with the  anti-BJP political grouping.

If the BJP loses the election as the popular mood in the Valley and in the significant parts of Jammu would tell you, it will be an unequivocal popular disapproval of the August 2019 decision. This will certainly have big ramifications as a win for the PAGD would vindicate that the constitutional changes were made without the consent of the local population.

But it is too soon to write the BJP off. The slick electoral machine that the saffron party has become over the past six years have been enabling it to win polls independent of its performance and contrary to what the people at a place think of it. This was once again proved in recent Bihar election where the BJP did well in areas with a large concentration of migrant workers who lost jobs during Modi government’s badly implemented lockdown and who had to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes from various parts of the country.

In J&K, there’s a predominant majority of people who are deeply aggrieved by the loss of autonomy – and this includes a major chunk among the BJP’s non-Muslim support base in Jammu. So normally the BJP should do poorly in the DDC polls. But will it? It looks unlikely as of now. The party, as is the known fact now, goes to any extent to mobilize the public opinion in its favour: it runs a loud, aggressive campaign, uses media of all kind to set the discourse, deploys now time-honored diversionary and divisive rhetoric to create an alternate reality where fear and hatred reigns. This obscures the real issues. Elections are held in a manufactured environment favourable to the BJP. The party has deployed the same tactics in Kashmir and more: the PAGD has accused it of denying it the level playing field by not letting its candidates campaign freely.

So, it will be really interesting to see which party or the alliance takes the majority of the DDCs. There’s so much riding on the face-off. The election will broadly determine and define the contours of the post-Article 370 politics of J&K.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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