What Voters Want: Assessing Electoral Politics in Kashmir

Political instability and civil unrest have lessened people’s faith in the electoral process.

In 2013, the number of Kashmiri locals recruited  by militants was in single digits. At the  end of 2018, however, this number was around 200. This increase in militancy in the state has coincided with a sharp decrease in voter turnout, with the 2018 local body elections witnessing only 8.3% of the Kashmir electorate coming out to vote. Candidates too, were unwilling to contest, with multiple wards having single or no candidates at all. 

However, increased army operations, militancy and popular dissatisfaction with government decisions have not always had a negative impact on voter turnout: the 2002 assembly elections saw a high voter turnout in Jammu and in the Kashmir Valley, with over 80% of the electorate coming out to vote—this was despite separatists’ calls for a boycott and high militancy in the state. Even in 2008, when large scale pro-independence protests erupted across the state over the Amarnath land issue, the state witnessed its highest ever turnout at 61.23%. 

Currently, a stable government in the state is also at a premium. The Mehbooba Mufti-led People's Democratic party (PDP)–Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition fell apart in 2018, and the state has been under governor’s rule since, with dates for the next assembly elections yet to be announced. Dineshwar Sharma, who was appointed as a government interlocutor to the state in 2017, has also failed to make progress in dialogue between separatists and the centre, with accusations that the government has failed to provide him with a fixed mandate, arresting separatist leaders while Sharma attempts to negotiate with them. 

This reading list examines previous assembly and parliamentary elections in the state with a focus on the Kashmir valley, and looks at voter trends and electoral issues. 

1) What Do Kashmiris Vote For?

Protesting for the right to self–determination does not negate the need for effective governance of the state. Gautam Navlakha writes that people recognise assembly polls as a means to an end—people vote on issues of employment, health and education. State governments have the authority to develop schools, build  roads, hospitals and to undertake other infrastructure development. The power to determine Kashmir's future, however, lies with the centre.

It enjoys little authority over the most visible public issue of concern, namely, the demilitarisation of the state … . The state government is, in fact, powerless to even decide on the release of political prisoners. These issues fall in the domain of the New Delhi-based national security apparatus.  

Ellora Puri, writing after the 2008 assembly elections, also argues that people’s desire for azadi does not negate their need for better governance. Azadi is not an anti-India slogan, writes Puri, but rather a demand for the people to decide their own future. 

The Hurriyat was preferred only by 17% of the respondents in the Valley as against 67% for the four big political parties. In contrast, asked which party was most suited to solving the Kashmir issue, the Hurriyat was picked by 63% in the Valley as against 20% for all mainstream parties. It is crucial to note that there was no difference between voters and non-voters in Kashmir on this question. 

2) Who Represents Separatist Politics?

Rekha Choudhary writes that the PDP was the first political party to bring issues related to conflict into the mainstream and to call for dialogue with militants, separatists and the Pakistani government. Choudhary argues that the PDP’s decision to pick issues such as human rights violations and options other than autonomy within the Indian state, which were originally exclusive to the separatist space and seen to  be against “national interest,” has changed the discourse around separatism, allowing it to be discussed even in the legislative assembly.

By acknowledging the issues that formed a part of popular discourse but were never addressed within the mainstream political space earlier, the political parties have sought to make their politics grounded in local realities. This has helped in reducing the level of superficiality of power politics in an environment where it suffered from a severe legitimacy crisis. In the process, it has also resulted in gradually creating a credible space for mainstream politics. 

3) Can Separatist and Electoral Politics Coexist?

Rekha Choudhary and V Nagendra Rao write that separatists are wary of participating in the Indian dempocratic process, as they may lose credibility and bargaining power with the government, and also create a split within separatist parties. The authors write that separatists thus partake in “boycott politics” to assert their political relevance.

Campaign against the election, therefore, provided an opportunity to many of these separatists to ground their politics at a more popular level.4 The boycott politics therefore assumed the form of full-fledged politics with separatists even invoking the language of rights; protesting against any restriction imposed by the authorities, arguing that their campaign for boycott was their democratic right.  

Further, the authors emphasise that elections in Kashmir should be seen solely as an attempt to form the government only and not as a means to resolve the Kashmir problem, which they argue will necessitate a protracted political negotiation. 

In the last few years, both separatism and electoral politics have coexisted, with political actors in both these spheres recognising the political reality of each other … It is in this context that one can understand that despite the increasing credibility of electoral politics and democratic governance, the need is felt, especially in the Valley of Kashmir, for a direct approach to deal with the Kashmir problem. In popular perception, such an approach involves an engagement with the separatists.  

4) Are Voter Turnout Rates Misleading?

Gautam Navlakha, Rita Manchanda and Tapan K Bose write that conducting  elections in Kashmir is a “national endeavour” whose success has to be ensured, even if it is manufactured. The army is used to “encourage” voters to come out and vote. The authors argue that the government and media are complicit in duping the general populace: reports from the Valley commend the J&K administration and the military for conducting a free and fair election with high turnout, ignoring the intimidation and force that is used to make Kashmiris participate in the elections.

The complaints of the Kashmiri voters to the visiting presspersons about the use of force were explained away as statements which people made to protect themselves from the wrath of the militants who had issued a boycott election call … . Logic behind this massive force deployment was to instill fear among the militants and overawe militancy. What it succeeded in achieving was to strike terror among the civilians … Corps Commander J S Dhillon claimed, "it was the duty of the army to encourage the voters to come out and vote*'. Chief Secretary of the state Ashok Kumar speaking to us two weeks after the so-called elections said much the same: "encouragement was necessary."

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