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Jammu and Kashmir: Changed Political Scenario

The high voter turnout in the recent by-elections in Jammu and Kashmir indicates the increasing acceptance of democratic politics on the part of the citizenry. Mainstream parties who participated in these elections also took up issues that have long been considered separatist themes, i e, human rights violations, opening up of links with Pakistan, etc. At the same time, the dichotomy between elections for purposes of governance and those to resolve wider political grievances still remains.

JAMMU AND KASHMIR

Changed Political Scenario

The high voter turnout in the recent by-elections in Jammu and Kashmir indicates the increasing acceptance of democratic politics on the part of the citizenry. Mainstream parties who participated in these elections also took up issues that have long been considered separatist themes, i e, human rights violations, opening up of links with Pakistan, etc. At the same time, the dichotomy between elections for purposes of governance and those to resolve wider political grievances still remains.

REKHA CHOWDHARY, V NAGENDRA RAO

T
he recently held by-elections for four assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir provides an interesting insight into the political temper of a state long ridden by militancy and separatism. All the four constituencies, one in Jammu region and three in Kashmir, fall in areas considered “militant infested”. Yet all witnessed a massive voter turnout. While Baderwah constituency which elected Ghulam Nabi Azad, the chief minister of the state, recorded a high 76.02 per cent voter turnout, the three north Kashmir constituencies of Rafiabad, Pattan, and Sangrama recorded 75.7 per cent, 69.23 per cent, 63.83 per cent voter turnout respectively. Looked at in the context of the past when elections were conducted during the period of militancy, this reflects a definite improvement in the nature of electoral participation, especially in north Kashmir. In the 2002 assembly elections, the voter turnout was 22.10 per cent in Sangrama, 41.55 per cent in Pattan and 52.54 per cent in Rafiabad. The unprecedented high voter turnout this time surpassed the percentage of votes in most constituencies during the controversial 1996 assembly elections which had registered high voter turnout, albeit dogged by allegations of coercion on the part of the security forces. Interestingly, this time there was no controversy about elections and not a single complaint was made, formally or informally, about the intervention of the security forces in the electoral process. The voluntary participation of people was acknowledged by one and all, including the separatists. The Greater Kashmir (April 25, 2006), while reporting on the long queues of voters in all the three constituencies stated that high turnout in the elections had indicated that people had taken a break from years of boycott of elections for various reasons. So intense was the enthusiasm for participation in the elections that even the grenade attacks during the poll process did not dampen the spirit of people.1

Separatists’ Response

Like earlier elections, the separatists had formally initiated a boycott campaign. But except for the aggressive campaign of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the campaign by other separatists was not as intense. This was

Table: Comparative Voter Turnout in Assembly Elections: 1996, 2002 and 2006

Constituency Percentage of Voter Turnout in 1996 2002 2006

Sangrama 60.26 22.10 63.83 Rafiabad 44.03 52.54 75.70 Pattan 71.36 41.55 69.23 Bhaderwah 66.73 54.25 76.02

Source: Chief electoral officer, Jammu and Kashmir, database of Election Commission of India.

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006 mainly due to the grassroot level response of people which is no longer positive to boycott politics – for three reasons. Firstly, in the context of peace process which reflects the popular urge for normalcy, boycott is seen as negative, hostile to the direction that the peace process is taking. Rather than indulging in such negative activities, like strikes or boycott, people now expect separatists to indulge in more positive processes that would contribute to the peace process. Secondly, in militancy ridden areas, which all the three north Kashmir constituencies represented, people are looking for a respite and therefore do not endorse the politics of boycott. As it became clear in the 2002 assembly election which reflected an uneven pattern of political participation, boycott politics has greater chances of succeeding in areas low in the level of violence. In the violenceprone areas, the urge for electoral participation is higher.2 Thirdly, in rural constituencies like these three constituencies of north Kashmir, where the local MLA is the only connection with the power structure, people want to exercise their choice in the election. Indulging in boycott results in the election by default of a representative with whom people may not identify.

The feeling that the boycott strategy may not work, therefore, resulted in separatists resorting to boycott politics only in a token form. However, the voters’ response in this election went much beyond the assessment of separatists. What astounded the separatists most was the eagerness of the voters to participate in the electoral process. The enthusiasm of people, who hitherto had remained sceptic of the electoral process, has initiated a debate among the separatists who are offering different explanations for the response of the voters. The major argument being floated by the former is that this election or for that matter, any other election is in no way related to the larger question of Kashmir which remains the most relevant one for Kashmiris. “People were mobilised by the offer of development sops in every village. This took the debate away from the larger political reality of Kashmir”,3 thus argues Geelani.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, similarly drawing a line between participation of people in elections and their separatist sentiment argues that there is need to take the question of elections out of the general separatist debate on Kashmir. “I think we have taken this issue too far. Elections are for governance and about everyday issues. And to see them as public opinion on the resolution of Kashmir dispute is misleading.”4

Intensely Contested Elections

One interesting factor that might have influenced voter participation in this election, especially in the valley of Kashmir, was the nature of the contest. With the exception of the Baderwah constituency where no political party except the BJP gave the challenge to the Congress candidate Ghulam Nabi Azad, in all the other constituencies there was a very stiff competition between the NC and the PDP. For both the parties, it was an election of very high stakes, the leaders linking their prestige with the outcome itself. For both the parties, it was not only a matter of winning a seat or a chance to test their electoral strength in Kashmir region, but also an occasion to even their scores with each other. In the two constituencies of Rafiabad and Pattan, the NC was facing two its own defectors, Dilawar Mir and Maulvi Iftikhar Ansari who were now contesting on PDP tickets. To give them a tough competition, the NC had fielded very high profile candidates. Mustafa Kamal, brother of Farooq Abdullah, for instance, was fielded by the NC against Iftikhar Ansari in Pattan. The stakes for the two parties were high in the third constituency as well though the contest here was between the PDP and an independent candidate. The NC was supporting the independent candidate Shoaib Lone, son of Ghulam Nabi Lone, a PDP minister of state assassinated by militants last year. Rather than giving ticket to his son, the PDP had fielded Javed Beig, the nephew of Muzzafar Beig, the state’s deputy chief minister. Campaigning was hectic and voters were mobilised by both parties invoking all kinds of issues.5 Voter mobilisation also took place due to the internal dissensions within the PDP and the Congress.6

The charged environment of electoral politics indicates the change in grassroot level responses towards democratic politics. As the political space becomes intensely competitive, it also provids greater space for expression of popular issues within the mainstream politics thereby adding to its role and credibility. There are two important factors to note in this context. Firstly, electoral politics is no more a non-legitimate activity in the valley. Earlier, in a separatist-oriented politics, the role of electoral politics was seriously questioned. Over the years, the electoral politics has carved a space for itself and its role is generally accepted. Even separatists like Mirwaiz Omar Farooq do not see anything wrong in people electing their representatives. Commenting on the byelections, he said: “These elections are about choosing the right candidates. If people pay taxes, they have reason to see that the money is in the right hands.”7

Secondly, the democratisation of the electoral space has widened the scope of mainstream political discourse. With the stakes for power politics increasing, the mainstream political parties have been trying to outdo each other in identifying with issues earlier raised only in the arena of separatist politics. Thus not only the issues like violation of human rights, dialogue with the separatists and militants, opening up of roads are being routinely raised by the PDP and NC along with other “sensitive” issues like “demilitarisation” and “self-rule”. This “mainstreaming” of “separatist” issues certainly has had an impact on the mainstream politics in the state, making it possible for the common people to identify with it. As a result, there is not only a blurring of lines between the separatist and mainstream politics but also a convergence at many points.

Electoral vs Separatist Politics

Popular response to electoral politics and separatism are two political realities of the state that have existed side by side, at least in last few years as democratic politics has extended its space and found greater acceptance among people especially in violence-hit areas. An example of how the two realities converge in the same space could be seen during this election in Baderwah constituency where on election eve, people in large numbers attended funeral of the senior-most Hizbul Mujahideen militant leader and chanted pro-azadi slogans but turned out to vote in large numbers, the next day.

It is for this reason it is difficult to use the electoral barometer to draw definite conclusions about separatism in the state. While democratic space has extended over the years, this does not mean that massive electoral participation implies a recession of separatist sentiments. On the contrary, it is in acknowledgement of the separatist sentiment at the ground level that mainstream political parties have started drawing a distinction between elections for the purpose of “governance” and the “ultimate

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

resolution of Kashmir problem”. Addressing the separatist sentiment therefore has its own logic and cannot be substituted by electoral politics. However, the two processes – the process of addressing the separatist sentiment through the peace process and the process of democratising mainstream politics are interlinked and do supplement each other. Extension of democratic space, as these by-elections reveal, will certainly generate a better environment for sustenance of the peace process.

m

Email: rekchowdhary@gmail.com

Notes

1 In Sangrama constituency, the hot-bed of militancy and separatist politics, polling had to be suspended for about one hour after a grenade attack hurt 15 people, two of them critically. People here not only protested against those using violence but also came back to form queues after polling resumed. Similar resentment against violence was shown in Pattan that also witnessed

a grenade attack during the polling process.

2 That is the reason why violence-hit Kupwara district recorded the highest voting percentage in that election and the relatively peaceful Srinagar district witnessed the lowest voter turnout.

3 Himalayan Mail, Jammu, April 26, 2006.

4 Ibid

5 The outcome of the election revealed the close nature of the contest. Of the four seats, Congress, NC and PDP could get one seat each (Congress in Baderwah, NC in Pattan and PDP in Rafiabad), while the fourth one was bagged by independent candidate, Shoaib Lone, in Sangrama.

6 Ghulam Hasan Mir, a senior PDP member and former cabinet minister openly campaigned against the PDP candidate in Sangrama and supported Shoaib Lone. He, along with two other members of the PDP, was later suspended by the party. There were internal differences within the Congress as well. While senior leaders like Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed, the PCC president and Saif-ud-din Soz campaigned for their coalition partner, PDP, the lower cadre of the Congress did not come forward while some of them like, Abdul Gani Vakil openly campaigned against the PDP candidate.

7 Himalayan Mail, op cit.

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

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