Jammu and Kashmir will have its first direct elections since the state lost special status and was split into two Union Territories on August 5, 2019. It will also see Kashmiri regional parties re-entering electoral politics after a long hiatus.

The elections, to be held in eight phases starting November 28, are a step to setting up district development councils, a new addition to Jammu and Kashmir’s panchayati raj system. Elections to vacant panchayat seats will also be held at the same time.

Announcing the dates earlier this month, state election commissioner KK Sharma said, “DDC elections will be held on party basis whereas Panchayat by-elections will be held on a non-political basis.”

After much deliberation, the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, a conglomeration of mostly Kashmiri parties, has decided to contest the district development council polls. The alliance, formally announced in October after leaders of several parties met at the home of National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, aims to restore statehood and special status for Jammu and Kashmir.

Most of its leaders had been imprisoned for about a year after the Centre announced its August 5 decisions.

On November 7, a statement by the alliance announced it would “fight the DDC elections unitedly” so as to keep the “democratic” space from being “invaded and marauded by divisive forces”.

“The idea is to not cede this space to Bharatiya Janata Party and allow them to recruit a new political set up here,” explained a senior leader associated with the Gupkar Alliance.

The BJP’s rise

In 2018, the BJP had swept the urban local body polls held in Jammu and Kashmir while regional parties boycotted them to protest against the growing threat to special status under Article 370 and protections under Article 35A.

While panchayat elections are officially held on non-party lines, most candidates are tacitly supported by some party or the other. Once again, with regional parties staying away from the panchayat elections, a large number of candidates supported by the BJP won seats. It helped that in many panchayat wards in the Valley, candidates won uncontested. Voter turnouts were in single digits.

Last October, while most Kashmiri leaders were still locked up, the administration conducted elections to block development councils, the second tier of the three-tier panchayati raj system. Panchs and sarpanchs elect members of these councils. Out of 307 blocks, the BJP won 81, the Congress got one, the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers’ Party got eight and independents won 217. A large number of these independents are believed to have been supported by the BJP.

Now that regional parties have decided to enter the electoral fray, the BJP has lashed out at them. Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke darkly of the “Gupkar gang” that he claimed wanted to drag Kashmir back into “terror and turmoil”. Party spokesperson Sambit Patra accused the “unholy” alliance of wanting “exactly what Pakistan and anti-India countries want”.

It appears to be a repeat of last year’s events, when the BJP-led Centre outlawed all politics that supported Article 370 and arrested almost the entire Kashmiri leadership.

As in the previous local body polls, candidates are holed up in quarters fortified by the government, unable to campaign in their constituencies, ostensibly because of security threats. But this time, several candidates claim that they are being confined against their wishes; Kashmiri regional parties accuse the Union Territory government of “blocking up candidates opposed to the BJP, using security as an excuse.”

But even if regional parties are able to make a dent in these elections, what powers will they have?

Voters line up for the 2018 local body elections in Kashmir. Picture credit: AFP

Developing the district

The directly elected district councils replace the district development boards originally envisaged as the third tier of local government by the 1989 Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act. The boards were to consist of the block council chiefs, local MPs, MLAs and municipal council members. But Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly was dissolved after August 5 last year and assembly elections are nowhere in sight.

Now, the electoral map of Kashmir will be redrawn to account for the new district councils. With direct elections, the third tier of the panchayati raj system will have a completely different composition from the lower two tiers.

The jurisdiction of the district development councils, which have a five-year term, will not extend to those areas notified as municipalities. So elections will only be held in areas falling outside municipalities. There are reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women.

Each district council will have five standing committees – one each for finance, development, public works, health and education, and welfare. While they might look after the day to day and developmental needs of the district, members of the council have no say on larger political issues such as special status, land laws and industrial policy.

Enter Gupkar Alliance

So parties of the Gupkar Alliance have mostly fielded second-rung political workers in the districts. “These are all ground-level workers who have been associated with the party for a long time,” explained the senior leader from the Gupkar Alliance. “In some cases, we have seen people who already have a political background or have contested elections before fielding their relatives – wives and daughters – as DDC candidates.”

Seat sharing between different parties of the alliance is decided by a team led by Gupkar Alliance president Farooq Abdullah. “Each party submits its list of potential candidates to its senior leaders and then they represent the party during deliberations over seat-sharing,” explained the senior leader.

Decisions were largely based on how strong a party was in a particular area but the alliance was open to experiment, he said. “There have been instances where leaders have conceded space to other parties – it’s mutual,” he said.

The BJP will also be choosing candidates from among its district-level cadre. “We will be fielding candidates on all seats of the DDCs in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, media-incharge of the BJP in Kashmir. “While most of the candidates are party workers at the district level, there are also some known faces who had contested assembly elections in the past as well.”

The elections are now expected to be a triangular contest between the Gupkar Alliance, the BJP and the newly formed Apni Party, led by former People’s Democratic Party leader Altaf Bukhari. Ever since it was formed after the August 5 decisions last year, reportedly with the blessings of the Centre, the Apni Party has attracted a number of senior politicians from the old Kashmiri leadership. It is expected to give Gupkar Alliance candidates a tough contest in some constituencies.

Dissensions within

But even within the alliance, seat sharing has not been smooth as parties that have traditionally been political rivals try to work together. Out of the 86 candidates fielded by the alliance so far, 39 belong to the National Conference. The People’s Democratic Party got 27 seats while the Sajjad Lone-led Peoples Conference got nine seats.

The distribution of seats has caused some heartburn. On November 14, Muzaffar Beigh, one of the founding members of the People’s Democratic Party and a former state finance minister, announced he was leaving it. “NC is fighting on a majority of seats,” told a local news agency in Srinagar. “It is not in the interests of PDP. I respect Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and I wish them luck. I am leaving PDP on principle.”

Insiders from the People’s Democratic Party claim Beigh’s decision was prompted by the Sangrama constituency going to the National Conference. “Sangrama is a women-reserved seat and he was expecting that his wife would be given a mandate to contest from there but that didn’t happen,” said a senior Peoples Democratic Party leader. Beigh’s wife, Safeena Beigh, is the president of the party’s women’s wing and has been very active in party affairs since its leaders were released from detention.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) the only national party that is formally in the alliance, also issued a note of dissent. It was unhappy that a People’s Democratic Party candidate had been chosen for the Pombay constituency in Kulgam district, where the Left party has always had a substantial presence.

The dissent was expressed by veteran communist leader and a four-time Member of Legislative Assembly from Kulgam, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami. “You can check the ratio of votes when I won against the PDP candidate in 2014 assembly polls or when I supported the NC candidate in 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” said veteran Left leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami. “There should be some justification [for the People’s Democratic Party getting the seat). We will contest this seat. This has already been decided.”

A higher purpose?

Faced with dissensions, People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti and People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone, both senior members of the Gupkar Alliance, have spoken of the need to rise above electoral politics to achieve higher objectives.

“Of course, there’s dissent but it’s dissent within the party not within the alliance,” explained the senior Gupkar Alliance leader. “Maybe some of our workers have wanted their senior leaders to put down their foot to get more seats but the top leadership has a different thinking. They are not giving much importance to these elections and want to remain focused on the core agenda of the alliance, which is the restoration of Article 370.”

With more candidates being chosen for the remaining seats, dissent is likely to crop up again. But he remained sanguine. “The very number of seats gives a lot of scope for accommodating many people,” he said. “While we can’t say that everyone will be happy with the seat-sharing, it won’t affect the alliance.”