A FARCE IN THE NAME OF POLLS

By ruthlessly crushing all remnants of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, claims of democratizing the state smack of hypocrisy
Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s opinion that the local bodies polls in Jammu and Kashmir would be of historic significance cannot be contested but his belief that they will help re-establish grassroots democracy is a wishful suggestion given the very farce that his government has reduced democracy to in Jammu and Kashmir. So far, the only visible signs of democracy in recent years have been limited to holding of elections.

The local bodies polls being held without the participation of two major regional key players and others in politics, the high levels of threat perception and daily violence and the vulnerability of lives makes even the present electoral exercise a slur in the name of democracy. The minister has spoken about empowering the panchayats and the municipal commissions through a slew of measures to enhance the funds at their disposal, while hinting at extending the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Indian constitution related to local bodies.

This may sound impressive only on the surface. However, the professed claims of democracy are nothing but a show of hypocrisy because the local bodies polls and claims of empowering the local bodies cannot be seen in isolation from the other political developments of the state. For nearly two years, the government has been unable to hold parliamentary election to the vacant seat of South Kashmir. Three months ago, the BJP’s actions in pulling out of the coalition government in the state defy any democratic practice. By disallowing the functioning of an elected state government, by putting roadblocks in all its ventures, by refusing to take the ownership of the Agenda of Alliance that it had inked together with the PDP while entering into a coalition after 2014 assembly elections and by ignoring the concerns of major political parties with respect to holding of local bodies polls at this juncture, the BJP and its ruled government at the Centre has not made any display of democratic traditions. Now, it appears to be mooting amendments in the laws related to local bodies, for better or worse, without the existence of a state government and without consultations with any of the other parties. Rajnath Singh has suggested such steps in the name of democratizing Jammu and Kashmir, raising a very pertinent question whether the road to greater democracy can be built over the foundations of the most undemocratic practices.

The conduct of the elections and the celebratory tone of the number of participants at the grassroots level while by-passing concerns of major political groups and over-looking the rising violence levels, betrays the arrogance of BJP, even a tinge of its ruthlessness. The high number of candidates in the elections all over the state does not really convey anything, because it remains silent over the lack of enthusiasm in Kashmir and absence of candidates in some of the pockets in South Kashmir where this narrative of a rosy picture is brutally punctured. Besides, presence of multiple candidates in any constituency does not signify high enthusiasm as it can be easily manipulated. The real test of the elections is when people go the ballot. The most recent example was of Srinagar-Budgam parliamentary elections in April 2017 where less than 6 percent polling took place. Local bodies polls usually anywhere in the country would draw greater number of voters than parliamentary polls. But Kashmir situation is too complex, complicated and delicate to believe that these elections would throw up similar patterns.

The likelihood of low polling would expose the farce that at best will allow BJP candidates to win some seats in the Valley. Whether this is the main design behind holding the elections, despite stiff opposition, or such farcical victories fall into BJP’s lap by default, this exercise will be historically significant for the new bench mark it sets with respect to sham elections. It will also be significant for it displays the increasing alienation of Kashmir, which now sees the transition from boycott calls by separatists to the boycott by mainstream political parties.