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The Big Story: Full circle

Earlier this month, results came in for Jammu and Kashmir’s District Development Council elections – the first direct polls held in the Union territory since it had been downgraded from a state the year earlier.

To understand these results, we need a bit of background.

On August 5, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Delhi decided to take full control of the political situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

Without engaging with the public or even their representatives in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, the Centre decided to downgrade the state to a Union territory, split it by carving out Ladakh and strip away the Constitutional guarantees of autonomy – i.e. Article 370, that had allowed for the erstwhile princely state to become a part of India.

If that unilateral action wasn’t alarming enough, all of this was done while the state was put under a complete lockdown by the security forces. There were curfews and military personnel on the streets and the internet was shut off. While Home Minister Amit Shah was making false claims to Parliament, all mainstream political leaders across the state were arrested or detained.

The Centre initially claimed that these detentions and arrests were meant to prevent a security crisis developing in the valley. Yet the fact that the politicians continued to be detained for months while the internet is still available only at low speeds made it clear that Delhi wanted to prevent citizens from exercising their democratic right to protest the altered situation. The BJP, it seemed, hoped to manipulate political outcomes in the region.

This was made even more clear through the conditions set on detainees who were eventually released – they had to sign bonds asserting that they would not speak about the abrogation of Article 370 or else they would be arrested again. Amit Shah put his stamp of approval on this undemocratic approach in a speech at the National Police Academy, saying according to the Ministry of Home Affairs, “Some bold decisions are necessary for people’s benefit, without getting bogged down by the fear of a backlash.”

“Backlash” in this case refers to legitimate political mobilisation. Taking “bold decisions” without allowing for public criticism and the opposition to mobilise can be called many things. Democratic is not one of them.

This was heightened by the fact that some of the political leaders kept under detention for the longest could hardly be described as firebrand separatists. Instead, they were former partners of the BJP, like former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti – who was in power because of an arrangement with Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Former PDP leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed – father to former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti – with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Despite having partnered with these leaders to come to power, the BJP – having put everyone else behind bars – began to talk of changing the political leadership in the former state. While three former chief ministers remained under detention, Delhi released one politician and welcomed the establishment of the “Apni Party”. This party, it said, said it would be a counter to the “dynastic, corrupt” politics that it claimed had been in play in Kashmir until then.

That line remained the BJP’s main argument for its crushing of civil liberties in the state. Not because of security concerns, but because it wanted to present a new alternative to the people – meaning politicians who accepted the post-August 5 situation and didn’t challenge the BJP’s undemocratic tactics.

Cut to December 2020.

The District Development Council polls had been announced out of the blue, and the administration had put a number of obstacles in the way of Kashmir’s parties, including detaining leaders, preventing campaigning and unleashing the central investigative agencies.

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration had been formed with the explicit aim of restoring Jammu and Kashmir’s pre-August 5 status. It included the two traditional rivals of the Kashmir Valley – the parties the BJP accused of being corrupt and dynastic – the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, as well as smaller parties like the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

And, in the first direct elections after the August 5 changes, this coalition captured 109 seats, handily beating the BJP, which won just 74 seats.

The BJP did have some reasons to celebrate. It managed to win three seats in the Kashmir Valley and pointed to the fact that it was the single-largest party, albeit a less meaningful claim since it was up against a coalition.

But it was evident that the people of the Kashmir valley had not turned against the older, pro-Article 370 parties in the way the BJP said they would. In fact, a close look at the results suggests that the saffron party had actually done worse than in the past.

As my colleague Safwat Zargar wrote,

“The Gupkar Alliance will control nine of the 10 district councils in the Valley, while the BJP will control six of 10 councils in Jammu. The National Conference and the Congress have made inroads in some districts of Jammu…

The results replicate the state assembly verdicts of yesteryear: Kashmiri parties won in the Muslim-majority Valley while national parties won most of Hindu-majority Jammu. The poll results also highlight Jammu and Kashmir’s divergent responses to the decisions of August 5, 2019. Kashmir voted against it. Most of Jammu voted for the BJP, which ushered in the sweeping legislative changes at the Centre.”

The results, with Jammu going the BJP’s way and Kashmir against it, may seem like an ordinary outcome. But that is the point. After an extraordinary year that was supposed to completely upend politics in the newly formed Union territory, the expected outcome ought to send a clear signal that the BJP’s efforts have failed.

Sushant Singh adds a few more important notes:

As Neelanjan Sircar noted on a preview interview, “A repressive state is a deeply expensive state to run.” The BJP poured money, effort and political capital into its crackdown and attempt to change the political situation in Kashmir – including headlines all over the world for crushing civil liberties, prompting criticism from the incoming US administration. Yet, its attempt to manipulate the political mood in the Valley has achieved little.

Of course, all that investment hasn’t gone to waste. With Jammu and Kashmir being a Union territory, Delhi has much more control over it than it did in the past, and the BJP can continue its efforts to change the political ground through the administration and security forces. But the public’s unhappiness with the August 5 decision remains evident, even if it hasn’t led to huge political mobilisation – not least because security forces won’t allow for that.

Maybe the most accurate interpretation of the results is that, despite Amit Shah’s promise that the Union territory would be restored to a state at some point, the BJP is unlikely to let democratic, political power return to the hands of the people anytime soon.

Can’t make this up

Harshit Singhai was elected to be the secretary of Jabalpur north assembly constituency of the Madhya Pradesh Youth Congress in the internal party elections held between December 10 and 12.

The only problem? Singhai had left the party to join the BJP. In March. And yet, somehow, nine months later, he was still elected to a Youth Congress post. Not a great omen for a party that expects to hold elections for the post of president sometime soon.


That’s it for the Political Fix in 2020. We wish you a Happy New Year, and will see you in 2021. For suggestions, feedback or funny gifs, email rohan@scroll.in.