ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Kashmir’s Shrinking Electoral Space

Rekha Chowdhary (rekchowdhary@gmail.com) is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Niwas, Shimla and author of Jammu and Kashmir: Politics of Identity and Separatism (2016).

The local body elections held recently in Jammu and Kashmir do not bode well for mainstream political parties.

Rekha Chowdhary writes:

The recent urban local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir clearly expose the shrinking democratic space in the Kashmir Valley. The vibrant electoral space that had been generated there since the 2002 assembly election, seems to have reduced in the last few years.

The elections for the 79 municipal bodies, including 71 municipal corporations in Srinagar and Jammu, six municipal councils and 71 municipal committees recorded a voter turnout of 35% in the state. This was mainly due to the high voter turnout in the Jammu and Ladakh regions. However, in the Kashmir Valley, the exercise faced almost complete rejection. The highest voter turnout there was 8.3%, which was recorded during the first phase of the poll. In other phases, the voter turnout was much lower, accounting for 3.4% in the second phase, 3.49% in the third phase, and 4% in the fourth phase. The rejection of the electoral process was clear much before the polling days as candidates were not forthcoming with filing their nomination papers. In a large number of wards, there was either no contestant or only a single contestant. Thus, out of a total of 598 wards in Kashmir, polling took place only in 186 wards. While in 231 wards, the single candidate who had filed the nomination was returned uncontested, there were 181 wards where there were no candidates at all. In the end, there were as many as 412 wards where there was no polling. Amidst the call for poll boycott by the separatists and militant organisations, the situation was so bad that even in the constituencies where polling took place, there was no campaigning and in some places people did not even know who the contesting ­candidates were as their names were kept secret to ensure their safety.

The electoral situation was reminiscent of the earlier phase of militancy in the post-1989 period in Kashmir when mainstream politics had completely collapsed and electoral politics had been completely delegitimised. The 1989 parliamentary election, for example, which had witnessed 5% voter turnout was termed as a farcical election. The 1996 assembly election had a substantial voter turnout, but lacked legitimacy since the voter participation was seen as “coerced” due to the presence of the security forces and the renegade militants. The 2001 panchayat election, too, was quite controversial with a large number of vacant constituencies where not a single candidate had filed nomination papers.

Since the 2002 assembly election, however, the credibility of the electoral process had increased. While the separatist space remained intact, with the intense competition between the two Kashmir-based political parties, the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), there was an increased stake in the electoral politics and participation of the people. Every successive election has seen a very high voter turnout with, of course, a pattern to it. The more local the election, the higher the voter turnout. Thus, there was greater enthusiasm for assembly elections as compared to the parliamentary elections. The panchayat elections enthused the Kashmiris more than the assembly elections. The 2011 panchayat election witnessed around 80% voter turnout. The call for boycott given by the separatists and militants throughout this period was rejected. Interestingly, even after the massive separatist upsurge in 2008 during the Amarnath land row, the voter turnout in the 2008 assembly election, held barely a few months later, was as high as 52% (more than 60% in at least four districts). Similarly, after the 2010 separatist upsurge that lasted for five months, there was great enthusiasm for the 2011 panchayat election. This liveliness in the electoral space was visible during the 2014 assembly election that was keenly ­contested and was preceded by an intense electoral campaign. Of the 46 constituencies in the Kashmir region, in 23, the voter turnout was more than 60%, 13 constituencies saw more than 70%, and five constituencies had more than 80% voter turnout.

Throughout this phase of electoral robustness, the Kashmiris had made a clear distinction between the “politics of governance” (mainstream politics) and the “politics of conflict resolution” (separatist politics). Hence, even while the separatist politics remained alive, the democratic space was also active. And, while continuing to hold separatist sentiments, people were convinced that electoral politics was important for bijli, sadak and pani (day-to-day issues of electricity, roads and water). This is the reason that, despite eruptions in the separatist politics, Kashmir still maintained the legitimacy of electoral politics and politics of governance.

This phase of a parallel “politics of governance” and “politics of conflict resolution” seems to be over now. Since the last successful electoral exercise in 2014, the situation in Kashmir seems to have undergone substantial change, especially after the 2016 separatist upsurge. The 2017 by-election for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency clearly reflected this change with intense violence and protests marring the election, which recorded a voter turnout of only 8%.

That the mainstream parties are facing severe challenges in Kashmir can be seen in the decision of the National Conference and the PDP to boycott the urban body elections. Ostensibly, they are staying away from the electoral process due to the political uncertainty caused by the issue of Article 35A that has been challenged in the Supreme Court. The real reason, however, is the situation on the ground in Kashmir, which is certainly not conducive for mainstream politics.

 

Updated On : 12th Nov, 2018

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