Low polling, secret candidates add to the sham of holding elections in an atmosphere of insecurity and rebellion
The enthusiasm for municipal polls in Jammu region, Rajouri, Poonch and Ladakh cannot be missed but the Valley’s elections shrouded in a cover of secrecy have turned the democratic exercise into an absolute farce. Barring Kupwara, where over 30 percent people voted, the polling percentage in rest of the districts did not cross the double-digit mark and was as pathetically low as about 3 percent in Bandipora.
Though this is not an unfamiliar terrain in the Valley which has elected representatives in the past with such low poll percentage in 1989 parliamentary polls and 2017 by-polls, unlike in the past, this time the level of enthusiasm of candidates matches that of the voter. Out of 600 municipal wards, 60 percent seats are either uncontested or remain vacant in the absence of any candidate at all. Unopposed candidature is not an exception to the Valley. It has happened in West Bengal local bodies polls and Tripura earlier, though the high number of 177 seats with no candidates is certainly a novelty. What makes the Kashmir story peculiar is also the secrecy over the identity of the candidates. Neither has there been any campaigning, nor are candidates moving into their constituencies to seek votes. Even more glaringly, the mandatory pre-requisite of publishing details of contesting candidates by the Election Commission has been dispensed with and there is no transparency about not just the important details of the candidates in fray but also their names. They remain faceless and are identified solely by numbers assigned to them, a trend which a news channel aptly described as ‘ghost election with secret candidates and invisible voters’.
The palpable sense of fear contributing to the low voter turn-out, as admitted also by the government, is also unique to Kashmir. But one of the other key reasons for low voter turn-out is the disenchantment of the public with Indian electoral process and the rebellious mood of the public particularly youth, to which the government has turned a virtual blind eye. Even if this be disregarded, how does the government expect the dynamics of sense of fear to change with local bodies polls which at best are a farce in the name of democracy. In 2014 assembly elections, the Valley witnessed enthusiastic participation of the voters who voted to keep BJP out of position of power in Jammu and Kashmir. However, a coalition with PDP handed BJP the reins of the state under a Centre ruled by BJP. It is no secret that this unholy alliance hastened the revival of the gun, which was already in the making due to brutal repression exercised by New Delhi against Kashmiris. What would be the fate of local governments represented by people, including the BJP winners, who have probably never even visited the constituencies they represent and who have been virtually imposed on them.
In every respect the electoral exercise in Kashmir is more about arrogance, urgency to score victories for BJP through most venal means; and not about exercising the democratic will of the people. In some ways, this is not unprecedented. Kashmir has always had a history of sham elections and a history of puppet regimes remote controlled by New Delhi. In 1953, the act of deposing Sheikh Abdullah government and jailing him set the tone of the kind of democracy that would be exercised in Kashmir. The present exercise resembles 1967 assembly elections when the Congress, in power at the Centre, went out of its way to wipe out any signs of opposition through abuse of power, use of official machinery and a phenomenon that is commonly referred to as ‘Khaliq-made MLAs’, named after the deputy commissioner Abdul Khaliq who rejected nomination papers of all opposition candidates in South Kashmir to ensure the victory of Congress. Using organs like repression, methods that enhance threat of militancy and other intimidating discourse like Article 35A, the BJP has done the same, much more systemically through easing out the coalition government first. That Governor Satya Pal Malik remarked in a television interview that Srinagar would soon have its municipal council headed by a foreign educated Mayor, even before the entire polling exercise is complete shows the extent to which this exercise has been pre-meditated, designed and manipulated. What makes the scenario worse now is the ongoing turbulence in the Valley and the fragility of the situation.