THE People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a regional conglomerate of political parties seeking restoration of statehood and semi-autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, is well within its rights to claim resounding success in the recently-held District Development Council (DDC) elections. The alliance can also claim that the DDC election results were a “referendum” for the position that it has taken on the “unilateral and undemocratic” abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019.
More than political conviction it was political compulsion for the PAGD to participate in the DDC elections. The aim, they said, was to not concede any leftover political space to the BJP and to make a symbolic statement that abrogation of Article 370 was unacceptable to the people. That objective has been achieved.
Indeed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) employed all tricks of the trade to alter the restive region’s political chessboard. The aim obviously was to create new political elite and new leadership. The election results clearly indicate that the saffron party failed in its Mission Kashmir. The Apni Party led by the PDP dissenter Altaf Bukhari has had to eat a humble pie.
The context in which the DDC elections were conducted in all the eight phases cannot be ignored by any stretch.
The elections were held in a choked and militarized atmosphere. Civil liberties continue to remain suspended. Media gag continues unabated. Journalism is criminalised. And censorship is normalised. Political detentions of ideological rivals have become a new normal. The high-speed internet service is unavailable for 16 months now. According to Access Now, J&K’s internet shutdown is the world’s longest. According to the Srinagar-based influential trade body Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), the regional economy suffered losses worth $5 billion with nearly 500,000 job losses.
This is the heavy cost that Kashmir has paid because of the unprecedented communications clampdown and political skulduggery.
The entire administration (and bureaucracy), as alleged by the PAGD leaders, was working against the amalgam at the behest of the BJP. The PAGD also alleged that their candidates were not provided the level playing field to campaign freely. They also said that many of their leaders were put under house arrest or arbitrary detention in the name of security. In their appreciation, had there been a level playing field for the PAGD candidates they could have won more than 110 DDC seats.
Let’s face a simple fact: The devil lies in the details. The BJP got only three per cent votes in the DDC polls from ten districts of the Kashmir Valley. Clearly, there is no BJP wave as is being claimed. The BJP won three seats in Kashmir. One of these was Kakapora, in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, which the saffron party won by a margin of just 14 votes.
This was made possible because of the unprecedented boycott of elections in the district. The twin districts of Shopian and Pulwama in south Kashmir witnessed low voter turnout during all eight phases, mostly in single-digits.
In its bastion, Jammu, the BJP managed to get 34 per cent vote share which is the lowest for the party in the last four elections. In simple words, of 140 DDC wards in the Kashmir Valley the BJP lost 137; and of 140 seats in the Jammu province it lost 68. Another way of putting this is that the BJP lost 14 districts out of 20 in entire Jammu and Kashmir.
The electoral arithmetic telegraphs a message that the BJP has not only lost in the Kashmir Valley, but it also lost significant ground in Jammu where the National Conference and the Congress Party have done reasonably well. The BJP has done well in the Hindu-dominated districts, most notably in Udhampur, Jammu, Samba, Reasi, Kathua and Samba.
This tells us that the BJP’s narrative has no takers in secular belts.
What also needs to be factored in is the fact that the overall voter turnout in the Kashmir Valley remained low, only 34 per cent. In contrast, the voter turnout in the Jammu province was close to 70 per cent. Despite this disparity, the BJP has failed in its efforts to alter the political map and electoral arithmetic in J&K.
On the contrary, the PAGD has won 13 districts. It has done well in the Kashmir Valley and also in parts of the Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal region. Overall, the PAGD won 110 DDC seats.
Among the seven parties that are part of the PAGD, the National Conference seems to have performed well in Kishtwar, Rajouri, Poonch and Ramban districts. That is apart from the Kashmir Valley districts. However, the NC lost three DDC wards in Beerwah, in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, because of the rebellion by one of its key leaders, Agha Ruhulla Mehdi. Mehdi who wields influence in the district is credited for ensuring Omar Abdullah’s victory from Beerwah Assembly segment in the last elections.
Be that as it may, the independent candidates also won a significant number of seats in the maiden DDC polls.
So far so good.
What next? What are the lessons that the PAGD can learn from the DDC election results?
Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of J&K and Vice-President of the National Conference, is on record saying that he won’t contest the Legislative Assembly elections unless Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood was restored. Another former Chief Minister and President of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Mehbooba Mufti in a recent interview with NDTV said that she won’t hanker after power and that she won’t participate in the Assembly elections until Article 370 was fully restored.
The two key PAGD leaders must keep in mind that the section of the population that believes in making a political point by participating in the electoral process has given them another chance; a lifeline. This section has participated in the elections to make a political statement that it rejects the August 5, 2019 decisions.
The real litmus test for the PAGD has only begun. The alliance leaders must not forget that there is a huge section of the population which has stayed away from the electoral process. And there are ideological forces which do not believe in de-linking the electoral process from the political resolution of the Kashmir issue. The electoral win should not make the PAGD complacent and forget the multiple layers involved.
Can the political alliance stick to the promises that its leaders have made about the Gupkar Declaration or forget them? Will the DDC election result bring in the element of political greed in focus? Can the PAGD show maturity by involving the civil society coalitions and other ideological forces for a broader consensus on the peaceful resolution process?
All said and done, the DDC election results are only symbolic. Politically speaking, the DDC representatives cannot do anything significant to alter the new ground realities. But what they can do is to respect the mandate of those who have voted in their favour to reject the August 5 decisions. The PAGD leaders must not forget this under any circumstances. Because Kashmir is a graveyard of reputations!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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