Amid internet shutdowns and boycott calls by separatists, the municipal elections in Jammu and Kashmir wound to an end on October 16. Jammu and Ladakh saw enthusiastic participation in many places. But in the Kashmir Valley, the four phases saw turnouts of 8.2%, 3.3%, 3.49% and 4% respectively. The polls were held after 13 years. In a state under governor’s rule, they were Delhi’s idea of strengthening democracy at the “grassroots level” and addressing the trust deficit that has built up between the Centre and the Valley. But this is the second consecutive election in the Valley which has seen single digit turnouts – last year’s Lok Sabha bye-elections to the Srinagar seat saw violence that killed at least eight and just 7.14% voting. The urban local body elections should be persuasive proof for the Centre that polls can no longer stand in for normalcy in Kashmir.
These elections were relatively free of violence but the circumstances in which they were held border on the absurd. Forget about election campaigns, in most constituencies, candidates were not known by name and candidates from various districts were garrisoned in Srinagar hotels and secured compounds. Out of the Valley’s 598 wards, about 190 were won uncontested and 178 saw no nominations filed. Empty booths, shuttered shops and heavy security deployment marked polling days. As the two major regional parties, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, boycotted the polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party made steady inroads in the Valley. It fielded candidates across districts, including the embattled areas of South Kashmir, its candidates won uncontested in several places, and now the party boasts it is confident of seeing a BJP mayor in Srinagar.
But the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre and part of the coalition government in the state until recently, must consider what it means to win such an election. On social media, reports emerged that those who did go to vote chased away journalists – if standing for elections was a threat to a candidate’s security, being seen to be voting was not safe either. But it was not only for safety that people stayed away; the massive security deployment on the streets and at the booths might have guarded against attacks, after all. The poor turnouts reflect a drift between government and the electorate that may soon become permanent.
The record of local bodies have not been inspiring. The killing of panchayat and municipal leaders and weak systems meant local government never really took off in Kashmir. With every level of government, the disappointments only grew more serious. The Kashmiri electorate turned away from the state government when the People’s Democratic Party, which had campaigned to keep the saffron party out of the Valley, tied up with the BJP after the elections of 2014. The bitterness with the state government deepened after the mass protests of 2016, when nearly a hundred civilians were killed in action by security forces, hundreds more injured, and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti seemed either unable or unwilling to stop the government crackdown. A long history of perceived betrayals by the Centre – from the issue of talks to solve the Kashmir dispute, to promises of autonomy – has ensured a lasting mistrust.
When the coalition government of the People’s Democratic Party and the BJP was replaced by governor’s rule, few mourned in the Valley. Administrative work was done more efficiently, ran the popular perception, and anyway democratically elected governments had been reduced to a sham. In the past, former voters in the Valley say, they would go to cast their ballot even after protests and government crackdowns, because their votes were invited on day to day issues such as water, electricity, roads and jobs. But that is no longer possible, they say. First, because the government took their participation to be a referendum on Kashmir, which was not the case. Second, because with rising militancy and killings on both sides of the ideological divide, the conversation about quotidian issues has all but died out. In the villages of South Kashmir, for instance, the main anxiety is about survival and the approaching panchayat elections have brought apprehensions of more violence.
In the current circumstances, the Centre can no longer pretend elections are a confidence-building measure. The tangled Kashmir dispute must be addressed directly, seemed to be the silent message in the deathly calm of these municipal polls.