What does the 7% voter turnout for the Srinagar Lok Sabha bye-poll mean for Kashmir? Did crowds of protestors storming polling booths presage the end of mainstream electoral politics in the Valley?

Sunday’s violent election, held in Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal distrcits, left eight civilians dead after security forces opened fire. It led to bye-polls for the Anantnag parliamentary seat being postponed from April 12 to May 25.

On Thursday, there was repolling for the Srinagar seat at 38 stations that had seen especially intense violence. But the turnouts this time were even weaker – in 27 booths, no votes were polled at all. By the end of the day, polling closed at 2%.

Leaders of the separatist camp, who had called for a boycott of the elections, claimed that the postponement of the Anantnag elections was an acknowledgement of “defeat” by the government. So did leaders of the Opposition, such as former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

Ghulam Ahmed Mir, state president of the Congress, was not impressed either. “The Election Commission had assured us that a conducive atmosphere would be created, that same EC has postponed it now,” he said. Earlier this week, he had asked the governor to take charge of the state until order was restored.

Journalists based in Srinagar were also sceptical. “I don’t know what is on the mind of the Election Commission,” said Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir Images. “Reports from the ministry of home affairs say the situation is not conducive. What magic do you have with you that you will change the situation by May 25?”

It is not just a matter of polling dates, a question of law and order. These elections say something deeper about politics in Kashmir. “The ground has shifted,” said Hilal Mir, editor of Kashmir Reader. That tenuous middle ground occupied by electoral politics even during the peak years of militancy in Kashmir is barely visible today.

The receding mainstream

September 2016 photo: National Conference's Iftikhar Misger pledged his support to the separatist movement in Anantnag

Ironically, mainstream leaders, on the retreat since the protests of 2016, have joined the chorus of voices speaking against the mainstream, positioning themselves “with the people” and against tainted systems.

Take Tariq Hamid Karra, once a member of the National Conference and then one of the founder members of the People’s Democratic Party, whose resignation from the Srinagar parliamentary seat in 2016 gave rise to the need for bye-polls this year. “It is a kind of upsurge, promoted by alienation,” he said of the bye-election and its fallout. “People are openly coming out against the establishment.”

In a strongly worded letter last year, Karra had said his resignation was in protest against state oppression, the “failure of Parliament” to contain killings by security forces and the “disillusionment” created by the alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the People’s Democratic Party. Then he joined the Congress.

This week, he criticised the ruling alliance once again in the language of the opposition. “The mainstream space is being squeezed day by day and the reason behind it is the unholy alliance of two diametrically opposite thoughts working together,” said Karra. “It is unrealistic and it is against the temperament not only of Kashmir but all Muslims of this state.”

Down south in the district of Anantnag, Iftikhar Misger, an active member of the National Conference for years, echoes similar sentiments. But he does not limit himself to political parties. In July last year, Misger had declared at a market square in Anantnag town that he was renouncing party politics and chanted anti-government slogans along with an angry crowd.

This year, he said, “The people of Kashmir have started refusing to take part in democratic processes. They have rejected mainstream politics. It is not about BJP-PDP, for that you have the NOTA (none of the above) button. People are not willing to take part in the system.”

The real trouble, Misger said, is not with the mainstream but with dynasties in the ruling parties. As in Uttar Pradesh, voters had tired of dynastic politics. What Kashmir needed, according to Misger, was fresh faces and ideas.

For decades now, political parties in the militancy hit Valley have won support by deploying the language of separatism in electoral politics. For instance, while the National Conference peddled “autonomy”, the People’s Democratic Party spoke of “self-rule”. Apart from gathering support, this rhetoric which was perhaps meant to be a shock absorber for separatist sentiments. But the language of “soft-separatism” had diminishing yields.

According to Hilal Mir, the two regional parties, once a major force in the Valley, had been “reduced to counter-insurgency”. According to Manzar, such language had only meant that pro-India parties ceded ground to separatists.

Farooq Abdullah. Image: AFP

“You had Farooq Abdullah (former chief minister of the state from the National Conference) saying bomb Pakistan, put the Hurriyat behind bars,” Manzar said. “Today he advocates for stone pelters. By picking up the same narrative, you are giving space to that narrative. You have made stone pelting legitimate, given it moral sanctity.”

Like 1989?

According to Hilal Mir, these violent elections saw the lowest turnout for the Srinagar parliamentary seat since 1967. But the polling figures in this bye-poll have also invited comparisons with the Lok Sabha elections of 1989.

Overall, Jammu and Kashmir averaged at about 25% that year. Yet constituencies like Baramulla and Anantnag hovered around 5% and in Srinagar, the National Conference candidate won uncontested. It was also the year militancy broke out in the Valley.

Do this year’s polling figures speak of a similar situation today? Not quite, both politicians and commentators say.

First, because militancy has not reached the scale that it had in the early 1990s. Hilal Mir recalls a neighbourhood in Srinagar’s old town which was home to about 120 local militants. Today, he surmises, the total number of militants in the entire Valley must be around the same.

Second, and more significantly, this is no longer just an armed struggle between security forces and militants. Between the two lies a sea of civil protest. In the 1990s, Misger said, there was an undercurrent of fear in the support for militancy, a “gun culture” that kept people away from the polling booths. Now, people boycott polls because they want to, and come out in numbers to face security forces.

“The present situation is more dangerous than 1989,” said Manzar. “Then the army was fighting armed militants. There is one way of dealing with combatants. How do you deal with unarmed youth?”

A deserted village, with pro-freedom slogans. Image credit: Rayan Naqash

Third, anti-government sentiments have struck deep roots in the Valley. New constituencies of popular support have opened up, older bases have hardened. The districts that erupted this year had been relatively calm even during the height of the militancy.

Budgam had no local militancy in the 1990s, and some of the areas had been untouched by protests, even in 2016, said Hilal Mir. The assembly constituency of Chrar-i-Sharief, which saw intense violence on Sunday, had ever known an election boycott, he added. From 1979 to 2014, it voted for the same National Conference leader, Abdul Rahim Rather, who is believed to have given jobs and worked to develop the area.

Besides, sometime between 1989 and 2017, the rage changed in timbre. “In the 1990s, people had started believing they would be free in a few months,” he said. “Now the anger and frustration have grown, the rage is accompanied by despair.”

Polling booth walls covered with pro-Pakistan slogans in Kashmir’s Budgam district. Image credit: Rayan Naqash

Will the mainstream return?

Mainstream politics in Jammu and Kashmir has survived many assaults on its credibility over the last three decades. Journalists in Srinagar speak of coercion by the armed forces in the 1990s and into the 2000s, when turnouts started picking up. “Even in (the assembly polls of) 2002, there was coercion, the army dragged people out of their houses to the polling booths,” said Hilal Mir, who had covered those elections. “But people also voted willingly.”

Then there were candidates who did not inspire confidence. Quite apart from failed electoral promises, their reasons for contesting were held suspect. “In the 2008 election, you had the highest number of contestants,” said Hilal Mir. “The government had promised them Rs 5 lakh each for contesting, but they got only half.” Still people voted.

Over the last decade, the Valley has seen mass uprisings, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, with high civilian casualties. Yet each year, there were growing voter turnouts for elections at various levels: 61.5% for the assembly elections of 2008, over 39% for the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, about 80% for the panchayat elections in 2010. After 2016, which left over 90 protestors dead, there has been no such comeback for the mainstream.

Partly because the rise of saffron politics and beef agitations have not escaped notice in Kashmir. “The space for minorities shrinking in India and the talk of Hindu Rashtra strengthens the ideology of separatists,” Manzar explained.

The other crucial difference lay in gestures made by government. “In 2010, more than 100 boys were killed, but the government in some way addressed the issue,” Manzar said. “Nothing happened but it announced commissions of enquiry. The first thing the chief minister did was to change the IG (inspector general of police). It gave the message to people that the government cares. Now there are no commissions, no reshuffles, apart from a few low profile ones.” This lack of “regret” has come back to haunt the government at a time when the memories of 2016 are still fresh.

Indeed, they may be more than memories. “I don’t think the uprising of 2016 ever ended,” said Hilal Mir. “What is happening today is an extension of that.”