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A day after the Srinagar parliamentary seat polled its highest-ever voter turnout in nearly three decades, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that this was a demonstration of support for the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution.

In a social media post, Shah said that the “surge in the poll percentage” meant that “the people of J&K have given a befitting reply to those who opposed the abrogation and are still advocating its restoration”.

On May 13, the redrawn Srinagar constituency recorded a total voter turnout of 38%, the highest figure since the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, only 14.43% of voters in the constituency cast their ballots. Before that, in the 2014 general election, 25.86% of voters went to the booth.

This is the first major election in Jammu and Kashmir since its special status and statehood were scrapped by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in August 2019. The Kashmir valley’s Baramulla constituency will vote on May 20 and Anantnag-Rajouri on May 25.

While the increase in voting percentage in the Kashmir valley is a fact, the reasons for the surge are multi-layered.

To begin with, the higher voter turnout in Kashmir valley was not unexpected, given the lack of electoral representation Kashmiris have been facing since 2018 when the last state government collapsed. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections were held before the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was cancelled.

Even though it has been nearly five years since the shake up, New Delhi has shied away from holding Assembly elections in the Union territory. In a region where the popular discontent against the events of August 2019 runs deep, it is more convenient for New Delhi to exercise its writ through its appointed lieutenant governor. It took the Supreme Court to nudge the Union government to promise to hold Assembly elections in the region by September.

In the aftermath of 2019, New Delhi adopted an iron-fisted approach towards the local mainstream parties that are opposed to the cancellation of the territory’s special status. In the case of separatists, the crackdown was even more intense. The period saw widespread detentions and anti-terror laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act being invoked against scores of activists and journalists.

Discontent against the Centre was further fuelled by the lack of a voice in the administration for the region’s people, as bureaucrats from other parts of India run the state machinery.

As political observers have underscored, the participation of Kashmiris in the Lok Sabha elections is largely driven by the desire to demonstrate to New Delhi that they have not accepted the abrogation of Article 370. In addition, observers say that Kashmiris want to use the ballot box to express their anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even the separatists have not called for a boycott of elections this time.

That is why these elections in Kashmir are all about the BJP – even though the Hindutva party is not participating in them directly. While parties such as the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party are encouraging voters to express their anger against the BJP through their votes, the other players in the election such as the Apni Party or the Peoples Conference have been labelled as “proxies” of the Hindutva party.

The parties contesting the election are not talking about development, infrastructure, taxes or jobs. Their main talking points have been the unpopular moves made by the BJP since August 2019

In a way, Shah’s interpretation of the high voting percentage as a sign of the growing confidence of Kashmiris in mainstream politics is not new. But though Kashmir has seen high voting percentages in previous elections too, the discontent against New Delhi for failing to address the larger Kashmir dispute has often led to massive public uprisings.

Months before the 2008 Assembly elections, the Kashmir valley had seen enormous protests against the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. As the police shot dozens of protestors dead and left thousands injured, many had expected the voting percentage to be minimal. Yet, 60% of eligible voters went to the booth.

Two years later, the popularly elected state government had to deal with another surge of protests.

Therefore, to read the higher voter turnout in Srinagar polls as an expression of support for the abrogation of Article 370 is a bit of a leap.

Even Amit Shah has acknowledged that Kashmiris are angry about the events of August 2019. At an election rally in Jammu in April, Shah admitted that the “BJP was not in a hurry to see the lotus bloom in the Valley”. The lotus is the BJP’s electoral symbol. In other words, the BJP was not going to contest the elections in Kashmir as it sensed certain defeat.

Shah had added: “We are not going to conquer Kashmir as projected by our adversaries. We want to win every heart of Kashmir.”

On May 13, Kashmiris may have voted in high numbers – but the route to winning their hearts is still very cluttered.

Also read

Why some Kashmiris who spurned the ballot in the past may vote in this Lok Sabha elections

Why the BJP has ducked a contest in Kashmir this time