In December, when the results of the first ever direct elections held in Jammu and Kashmir after its reorganisation were announced, they were along predictable lines.

The Kashmir valley had overwhelmingly voted in favour of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a conglomerate of older, regional political parties that have been demanding the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and special status under Article 370 of the Constitution, which had been dismantled by the central government in August 2019. The Jammu region, meanwhile, voted largely for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The elections had been held for establishing District Development Councils, the third tier of local governance in the Panchayati Raj system. All 20 districts in the union territory stood divided into 14 constituencies. Of the 280 district council constituencies, the Gupkar Alliance won 110 seats, followed by Bharatiya Janata Party with 75 seats.

Going by the results, the Gupkar Alliance was set to have its chairman and vice-chairman in at least six of the 10 district development councils in Kashmir. In three other districts, it just needed the support of only one elected councillor from each district to take its tally up to nine.

But as the process of electing chairman and vice-chairman of district development councils came to an end on February 13, the picture was starkly different. Instead of six councils, the Gupkar Alliance managed to secure control of only five – Anantnag, Kulgam, Ganderbal, Pulwama and Bandipora. It also failed to cobble up the support of independent district councillors in other districts to increase its tally.

In contrast, the newly-formed Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, which had managed to win only 12 seats across 20 districts, took control of two district development councils in Kashmir. While the party echoes the Gupkar Alliance’s demand for the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir, it has dismissed the fight for the special status under Article 370 as a “false narrative”, leading many to believe it is a creation of New Delhi to counter the traditional mainstream parties in Kashmir.

Anti-defection law

Leaders of the Gupkar Alliance allege what swung the chairperson elections in favour of the Apni Party is cross-voting enabled by the ambiguity over the implementation of the anti-defection law in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government enacted and inserted the anti-defection law in the Indian Constitution, making political defections of elected representatives illegal. Under the law, which is applicable to both Parliament and state assemblies, if a legislator disobeys the party whip on a vote, they can be disqualified by the presiding officer of the house.

Until 2019, central laws were not directly applicable to Jammu and Kashmir because of its special status. The erstwhile state had framed its own anti-defection law which was considered stronger than the central legislation. However, after Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special status and downgraded into two Union territories, older state laws ceased to exist. The administration has not clarified whether the central law is now applicable to the union territory.

This is the first time Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed direct elections to the district councils. While the central anti-defection law is not applicable to local government bodies, in Kashmir, when the Gupkar Alliance raised questions about this, the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, PK Pole, told reporters he would check with the rural development department and respond. There has been no answer since.

Meanwhile, cross-voting by elected members of district development councils has not invited disqualification of these members.

Muzaffar Shah, leader of Awami National Conference, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mehbooba Mufti, President of Peoples Democratic Party, Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah of National Conference, address the media after their meeting in Srinagar, October 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

An alliance that broke

The Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration took shape in October 2020 with six political parties, including the National Conference led by the Abdullahs, the Peoples Democratic Party led by Mehbooba Mufti and the former separatist-turned-mainstream politician Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference. The only national party that is part of the alliance is Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Rivals for decades, the Kashmiri parties decided to work together after their leaders emerged from months of detention, part of the clampdown put in place by the Centre when it stripped the state of its special status in August 2019.

For the council elections, the Gupkar Alliance partners arrived at a seat-sharing agreement based on which party stood the best chances of winning a particular seat.

To control a district development council, a party must have the support of eight elected district councillors among the 14 in the district. Then, the party can use its majority to elect the chairman and vice-chairman of its choice among the elected members.

In north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, the Gupkar Alliance had won nine out of the 14 council seats – while the National Conference had secured four seats, the Peoples Conference had won five. But before the alliance could elect its chairman and vice-chairman, the Peoples Conference quit the alliance in January, citing “breach of trust among partners”.

When the election for the Kupwara district council chairperson was held on February 8, the Peoples Conference candidate, who already had four elected party colleagues on his side, received support from the single elected councillor of Jammu and Kashmir Apni party and three independents. He won with nine votes, including his own vote. The vice-chairman’s post went to an independent candidate.

The post-elections exit of the Peoples Conference from the Gupkar Alliance also ruined the conglomerate’s prospects in Baramulla district.

Members of the alliance – National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and People Conference – had collectively won seven out of the 14 seats in the district. While two seats each had been won by the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party, the Peoples Conference had clinched three seats. The alliance needed just one more seat to wrest control of the district council.

But, by the time the elections for chairpersons were held in Baramulla on February 13, the Peoples Conference was no longer part of the alliance. It threw its support behind an independent candidate Safina Beigh, the wife of the senior Peoples Democratic Party leader Muzaffar Hussain Beigh. She secured 10 out of the 14 votes, winning over the support of elected members of Apni Party, Congress and two independents. The Gupkar Alliance’s candidate could only manage four votes.

The post of vice-chairman in the district also went to the Peoples Conference, whose candidate secured seven votes and was eventually declared winner after a draw of lots.

Cross-voting or intimidation?

The Gupkar Alliance had to also taste defeat in the chairperson elections in Budgam district despite winning a majority of the seats. While the Gupkar Alliance had won 10 of the 14 seats in the district, an independent candidate Nazir Ahmad Khan emerged as a winner for the post of district development council chairman.

Officially a member of the Peoples Democratic Party, Khan had contested the council elections as an independent. On the day of polling, both he and his rival National Conference candidate Abdul Ahad Dar secured seven votes each – Khan was eventually elected as the chairman through a draw of lots.

The result was unexpected. Khan could not have secured seven votes without at least three of the Gupkar Alliance councillors switching sides and voting in his favour during the secret ballot.

The discrepancy was less noticeable in the voting for the post of the vice-chairman. Nazir Ahmad Jahara of the Gupkar Alliance was elected the vice-chairperson after he scored nine votes in his favour – one short of the total number of seats won by the alliance in the district.

Calling the outcome of the Budgam chairperson election “murder of democracy”, the National Conference has decided to challenge it in court.

Apni Party’s success

Across the 20 districts of Jammu and Kashmir, the newly-formed Apni Party had managed to win only 12 seats. Yet, nearly two months after the election results, it was able to cobble up enough support from a varied group of elected members to elect its chairman in Srinagar and Shopian districts.

In Srinagar, Apni Party had emerged as the single largest party by winning three seats while seven seats had been won by independents. The Bharatiya Janata Party also tasted its first ever victory in a direct election in Srinagar after one of its candidates emerged victorious. On the other hand, the Gupkar Alliance won only three seats in the capital district.

In the chairperson elections for district development council in Srinagar, the Apni Party’s candidate secured ten votes in his favour. Along with the support of independents, the Apni Party’s candidate for the post of chairman was supported by the single elected member of Bharatiya Janata Party.

The support of BJP for the Apni Party is significant. Led by former People’s Democratic Party leader Altaf Bukhari, when the Apni Party was formed in March 2020, it was widely seen to have the blessings of the Centre.

Many believe the Srinagar district council chairperson’s election has brought the tacit understanding between the Apni Party and the BJP-ruled Centre out in the open.

In Shopian, the Apni Party had won only two out of the 14 seats. However, immediately after the results, three of the four successful independent candidates in the election joined the party.

On the day of elections for the post of chairman and vice-chairman, the Apni Party’s candidate bagged eight votes, signaling cross-voting by one of the elected members from Gupkar Alliance in favour of the party. The post of vice-chairman too went to the Apni Party.

The aftermath of results had also seen the defection of two successful candidates from National Conference and Congress to the Apni Party.

Horse-trading allegations

The National Conference has raised the matter of defections with the State Election Commissioner KK Sharma and sought the disqualification of members who voted for other parties other than their own.

“…such defections undermined the spirit of democracy and violated the people’s mandate so such DDC members who have changed the party affiliations post elections should be disqualified and until proceedings in that direction were initiated such DDC members should be debarred from voting. The State election commissioner assured them [National Conference leaders] that he would examine the matter,” a statement issued by the National Conference on February 6, said.

The chorus for the implementation of anti-defection law in district counsil elections had grown after senior leaders of the Gupkar Alliance in December had alleged horse-trading and arm-twisting of its successful candidates by the administration.

The Peoples Democratic Party also alleges that the elections for district development council chairpersons were deliberately delayed for two months in order to intimidate its candidates. Some of its leaders have also been under detention since the announcement of district development council election results in December.

The Jammu and Kashmir administration has not responded to these allegations.