Ali Mohammad Shah decided to use a loudspeaker only on November 26, the last day of campaigning before the district development council elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Campaigning had been low key before that. Shah had visited the homes of village chiefs, talked to people sitting on “pends”, or shopfronts, arenas for public discussion in Kashmir. In some villages, he had gone door to door.

There was no point to a high-voltage campaign, explained Shah, who is a member of the People’s Democratic Party and is contesting the elections as a candidate for the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a conglomeration of mainly Kashmiri parties. “The traditional fervour of elections is missing,” he said. “People just don’t attach any meaning to these elections now.”

Even the muted campaign had been full of challenges. “It’s very hard to face people and convince them to vote,” said Shah, who is standing for election in the Keller-2 constituency of South Kashmir’s Shopian district. “After August 5, people have lost hope. They ask us about it. People feel betrayed.”

He was referring to the decisions taken by the Central government on August 5, 2019, stripping Jammu and Kashmir of special status and splitting the state into two Union Territories. The Gupkar Alliance had been formed by parties who vowed to fight for the restoration of special status and statehood.

“We are following what our leaders [of the Gupkar Alliance] have decided,” said Shah. “We are telling people to vote for us so as not to allow these councils to become another platform for the BJP to disempower Kashmiris.”

There is another challenge for Shah. He must campaign without any security in a district where militancy is widespread.

Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti at a press conference in October. She claimed she was put under house arrest a day before the polls started. Picture credit: S Irfan/PTI

Fighting for political space

These will be the first direct elections in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5, 2019. As it lost statehood, the legislative assembly was also dissolved. The Centre promised to hold assembly elections once legislative constituencies were redrawn. Meanwhile, it claimed to push “grassroots democracy” through institutions of local government.

Directly elected district development councils are a new addition to Jammu and Kashmir’s panchayati raj system. They will form the third, and topmost, tier of local government. Councillors will be in charge of meeting the day to day needs of their constituencies. Each district has been divided into 14 new council constituencies.

Since 2018, Kashmiri parties have boycotted local government polls in protest against the threat to Article 370 and 35A, which ensured special status and special protections for Jammu and Kashmir. That had allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party to make inroads into the Valley. However, voter turnouts in gram panchayat and municipal elections were abysmal. Many seats were won uncontested, others were left empty. Elections to these seats will be held along with district development council polls, which start on November 28 and will be staggered over eight phases.

Campaigning for local polls has always been low-key because of security threats to candidates. This time, it has been fraught with controversy. As the Gupkar Alliance declared it would contest polls, the BJP lashed out, dubbing them “anti-national”, the “Gupkar gang”.

Leaders of Kashmiri parties have consistently complained that the administration restricted their movements, ostensibly on security grounds, but let BJP candidates move around freely. In the weeks leading up to the election, a barrage of cases suddenly emerged against Gupkar Alliance leaders. The Abdullahs of the National Conference were booked for corruption involving land transfers under the Roshni Act. The People’s Democratic Party president Waheed ur-Rehman Para was summoned by the National Investigation Agency for questioning in a terror case a day after he filed his nomination for the council polls. He was later arrested.

On November 27, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti claimed she was under house arrest, even though no formal order had been issued.

A car rally in Shopian

Shah is one of the many candidates who signed a bond saying they did not want security detail from the government.

“When we filed the nomination papers, the district administration took us to a government accommodation and kept us under security,” he recounted. “But the funny part was that three to four candidates, all contesting against each other, were put in a single car with security personnel for campaigning. So, if a candidate had a meeting, his rival candidates would listen to everything he told the voters because they had to sit in the car while he was addressing people.”

Shah said he spent seven days in government accommodation in Shopian district before he got frustrated with the arrangements and agreed to sign the bond. On November 26, Shah was relieved. He had reached the last day of campaigning without coming to harm.

In many ways, the electoral fight in Keller-2 typifies the triangular contest across the Valley. While there are six candidates, there are three major contenders: Shah himself, Javid Qadri of the BJP and Irfan Manhas of the newly formed Apni Party. Qadri and Shah belong to the same village, Mochwara. Manhas has political lineage. His father, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, was a People’s Democratic Party leader who recently switched to the Apni Party.

On November 26, Shah and Raja Waheed, a party colleague, were doing a small car rally in Keller-2 constituency. Waheed, who is contesting from Shopian-2 constituency, is the more loquacious of the two.

“Your vote is essential to keep out those forces determined to erase the existence of Kashmiris,” Waheed told a group of party workers gathered at a village crossroad in Berhtipora village. “Nobody has given a boycott call. Because the boycott will help BJP. That’s why I appeal you to vote for Shah Sahab and stop their nefarious designs against Kashmiris.”

For security, they rely on party workers keeping an eye out for trouble. Outside the small gaggle of workers surrounding the two candidates, some village residents listened attentively to Waheed’s short speech. But they were reluctant to join the gathering.

Not many people gather around the candidates on the campaign trail in Shopian district. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

Speaking for the people

Most seemed unconvinced. “Will the Gupkar Alliance winning DDC polls bring back our special status? How does it matter if all the elected DDCs are from BJP?” demanded Mehraj Ahmad, a resident of Keller. “Isn’t BJP ruling Jammu and Kashmir already? This election is a deception.”

Back in his car, Waheed admitted that parties fighting elections had lost credibility in Kashmir after August 5, 2019. “There’s a sense of shame when we go to the public,” he said. “It’s very difficult for them to trust us now.”

One important reason for entering the council elections, he explained, was to give weight to the newly formed Gupkar Alliance. “Our word and struggle for the restoration of Article 370 will have the legitimacy of the people of Jammu and Kashmir – it would be difficult for New Delhi to ignore us then,” he said.

The leaders of the Gupkar Alliance had already lost much of their base before August 5, 2019. When they were locked up post August 5, many in Kashmir expressed grim satisfaction. It was recalled that, for decades, such leaders had presided over mass arrests and killings by security forces. Political memory is long in Kashmir and the past failures of the leadership are continually invoked.

Waheed was aware that the district councils had limited powers but he hoped being elected would help recover some lost ground. “We know development is a key function of the District Development Councils but, at the same time, we won’t allow any unpopular decision to be taken at the local level,” he said. “When that happens, we will use this as a space for protest.”

Both Waheed and Shah are hoping voting percentages will be better than in the last few elections in Kashmir, but it does not look good. “There’s no enthusiasm,” said Waheed. “People say they will vote but it will only be clear on polling day.”

Riven from within

Public disaffection may not be the Gupkar Alliance’s only problem. Tussles over seat sharing have meant that the alliance is weakening from within. In Sherpathri constituency of central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, Mohammad Altaf Sofi, can sense an opportunity. The district has traditionally been a National Conference bastion but he expects the Sherpathri ticket will be given to a People’s Democratic Party candidate.

“This has not gone down well with the traditional National Conference base in Ganderbal and it will be hard for them to canvass in favour of a PDP candidate at the local level,” he said.

Elsewhere, the grievance is that the lion’s share of the seats had gone to the National Conference, whose leader, Farooq Abdullah, also heads the Gupkar Alliance. As late as November 26, Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjura of the Peoples Democratic Party appealed to Abdullah to review seatsharing decisions.

Meanwhile in Sherpathri, Sofi was contesting as an independent candidate. He says he would refuse a Gupkar Alliance ticket even if it was offered to him. According to him, the People’s Democratic Party had too much baggage. “It was the PDP which aligned with the BJP and now they are asking people to vote to keep away the BJP – how will people believe them?” demanded Sofi, a businessman from Rabitar village in Ganderbal.

While Sofi says he will not be politically bracketed, he enjoys the support of a local strongman, Farooq Ahmad Dar, also known as Farooq Ganderbali. A former district president of the Peoples Democratic Party, Dar had quit the party after August 5 last year. He also supported the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, saying there was no “harm if people can benefit from a UT status.”

So on November 25, as Sofi held his first meeting at Sehpora village, he was making an enthusiastic case for development. “I have only one bad habit,” declared Sofi. “I smoke cigarettes. Apart from that, I don’t have any faults. My only aim is to serve my people and provide them with all the basic acilities.”