Jammu and Kashmir is all set to witness its first election — for the district development councils and bypolls in nearly 13,000 panchayat constituencies — after the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state. Although the formation of an anti-BJP alliance by major political parties has rekindled political activity in the region, the presence of security agencies has cast a shadow of gloom and doom on the electoral activity.
The upbeat mood that is usually witnessed during the election process is missing on the ground — courtesy the climate of insecurity fuelled by the security forces immediately after nominations were filed for the first phase of voting. Contesting candidates are put under quasi-detention in ‘cluster accommodations,’ owing to security concerns, thereby, restricting movement and any possibility of a robust campaign ahead of the election day.
Ironically, one such cluster accommodation has been set up in a government building, the Entrepreneurship Development Institute, designated for the facilitation and incubations of start-ups and new businesses in J&K. According to news reports, the candidates are alleging they have been whisked away against their wishes, in some cases without allowing them to even pick up clothes from their residences. Clearly, the government is not confident about providing them with security during the campaign process.
Paradoxically, security officers have repeatedly made a big show of their success against militancy and have flaunted the number of militants killed in the region, the decline in terror attacks and the decrease in street protests and stone-pelting; yet, on the other hand, they claim that a safe and secure environment cannot be provided for campaigning. As of now, it looks like the election will see little to no campaigning in some areas of the Kashmir Valley — something that will defeat the very purpose of the elections, which is to kickstart political activity in the region.
The security scare is rather baffling considering that on November 1, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir had claimed that the militancy in north Kashmir had been “eradicated to a large extent” and was on its “last leg”. What is also strange is the fact that mandatory consultations are held with security agencies and only after a consensus emerges among the agencies, are the elections announced. This raises serious questions on the timing of the elections and preparedness of the security forces. Were the elections announced in a hurry and without adequate preparation?
Up until now, the militant groups and separatists have not issued any threats or calls for election boycott, indicating both a shift in their tactics as well as an easing of threat perception. There is also no doubt that the overall security scenario is much better than the last few years. Why then are the security agencies reluctant to allow a robust on-ground campaign to candidates?
The chaotic situation created by the security forces is already leading to allegations of election meddling. Political parties belonging to the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration have started accusing the administration of helping the BJP and newly formed APNI Party, which is considered close to the Central government.
Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, without mincing words, launched a scathing attack on the government, tweeting: "J&K administration is going out of its way to help the BJP & it’s recently created king’s party by locking up candidates opposed to the BJP, using security as an excuse. If the security situation isn’t conducive to campaigning what was the need to announce elections?”
Another leader raised questions on the fairness of elections: “BJP and the king’s party candidates and their junior-level workers are provided personal security while as (sic) all others are hounded to far away government accommodation. Is this the ‘New Mantra’ of providing a level playing field or is it to influence this election?”
The government and the security forces need to take these allegations very seriously and assuage the concern of the political parties. There is no doubt that these elections will get a lot of global attention. The political history of Jammu and Kashmir has been marred by rigged elections. The government and security agencies are doing a great disservice by creating such a chaotic and insecure environment around the process of electioneering, and if this continues, it will have serious repercussions.
For one, restrictions on campaigning will deter the voters from coming out in large numbers. Jammu & Kashmir has been under the direct rule of the central government for 29 months now. A low voter turnout will come as a big embarrassment for the Modi government and its Kashmir policy.
For another, there is a serious lesson to be drawn from the previous panchayat polls. The low voter turnout severely dented the credibility of the elected panchayat leaders. The sense of insecurity around the process acted as a deterrent for the contestation of elections, which resulted in uncontested elections in a large number of constituencies.
The sense of fear was so severe around that 60 per cent of panchayat seats in the Union Territory remained vacant for two years. Those elected could not carry out their duties freely due to threat perception. Many of the elected panchayat leaders did not visit their homes for months and remained locked up in so-called secure accommodations — a far cry from carrying out any developmental work in their constituencies.
Worse, it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions: Is the entrenched bureaucratic system causing impediments in much-needed decentralisation of powers, quite like the National Conference and PDP did by boycotting the previous elections? Is the administration causing roadblocks to influence the electoral fortunes of the newly formed political alliance against the BJP, as is being alleged by politicians like Omar Abdullah?
The objective of holding these polls is to give the third tier of democracy a new lease on life, to ensure a new crop of young and dynamic leadership takes the region out of the current morass by conducting developmental activities at the grassroots. The inability and unwillingness of the government to provide security on the streets for every contestant and elected member of the development councils reduces the election to a cosmetic effort and renders the whole process futile.
The writer is Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. Views expressed are personal.