Grassroots democracy in Kashmir, anyone? Let us not delude ourselves. There can be no democracy at the local or even at the assembly level unless there is a modicum of normalcy in the Valley. Let us also be clear. Quite a few Assembly and Lok Sabha polls in the past were marred by large-scale rigging, with the tacit approval of the authorities. In recent decades, a lone Assembly poll held in a most transparent manner was when the Janata Party Government of Prime Minister Morarji Desai was in power. The Assembly election that was rigged thoroughly was held when Rajiv Gandhi was in power. Farooq Abdullah recently conceded as much, justifying the blatant distortion of the popular will on the ground that the party that was set to emerge as winners was likely to pass an anti-India resolution in the Assembly and thus invite trouble for the country in global forums.
In short, the Abdullahs benefited the most from betraying the Kashmiris, ensuring that successive central governments arranged to have the electoral outcomes tailor-made in their favour. The August 5 changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir and the events accompanying them may have finally called time on the Abdullahs’ duplicitous role in the State. Unless the gilded house arrest manages to revive the elder Abdullah’s fortunes there appears little chance of the traditional leadership of J and K regaining relevance. However, the Modi Government’s endeavour for grooming a new leadership thus far seems to be a non-starter. The panchayat elections held last year did not result in the birth of a new leadership.
These polls witnessed low voter participation. Local self-government at the grassroots level may be the essence of a participatory democracy but in Kashmir in the absence of peaceful conditions, these will lack popular sanction. Fear of the militants is a huge factor in keeping people away from the polling stations. The panches and sarpanches elected in last year’s polls are so terrified that most of them have not returned to their villages since. Therefore, the decision of the J and K State Election Commission to now go ahead with the polls to Block Development Council arouses serious skepticism. Holding these on October 24, as the State Election Commission announced last Sunday, in conditions which are far from normal makes little sense. It is hard to see anyone risking his or her physical wellbeing by coming forward to either contest or to vote in these polls.
Why, then, should the J and K Election Commission, go through the motions of holding a poll, which is doomed to face a blanket boycott by all the stakeholders from the start? Even as a tool of propaganda it will serve little purpose. Unless there can be a marked improvement in the law and order situation in Kashmir in the next couple of weeks, these polls should be put off immediately. On paper, going through the motions of strengthening institutions of grassroots democracy might make a good reading, but the world at large will see it for what it is, that is, a farce. Kashmir can do without such a superficial exercise. We should dispense with these empty gestures to people’s power and instead think of ways to win back the trust of the Kashmiris. We know it is an uphill task but in the larger national interest we have to undertake it.
As we have said in this space a number of times since August 5, Kashmir cannot remain locked-down indefinitely. Sooner or later, the vice-like grip of the security forces will have to be relaxed, a bit at a time but nonetheless relaxed all the same. Let the people come out on the streets and express their anger at the recent changes in the status of the State. It is neither in the peoples’ interests nor in the government’s to persist with the current state of siege. Meanwhile, the apex court is set to take up a batch of petitions against the deletion of Article 370 and the consequent detention of people following the junking of the special status of the State. The release of detainees should help ease the atmosphere to an extent. Unless the political process starts anew in Kashmir there can be no normalcy in the State. But holding what are set to be farcical elections to block development councils is certainly not the way to go about locating a solution to the vexed Kashmir problem.