Polling percentage is a big deal in Kashmir. It is the barometer of situation in the politically sensitive region. With the separatist groups opposing the “sham elections” in principle, the voter turnout also tells us how strongly they are placed or how weary or weak they have grown over the years. It also reflects magnitude of alienation against Delhi. If the voting percentage is on the lower side, as it has been so far in the first three phases of the ongoing urban local body polls in the valley, the separatists are quick to claim it as a referendum against the Indian rule and if it’s on the higher side, the government promptly projects it as the “defeat of separatism and secessionists”.
Before every election in Kashmir, there is a sense of uncertainty in the air. This election was no different. The question on every one’s mind was: “Would people come out to vote or would they boycott the exercise?”
A curious neighbour casually enquired about the polls and when I said BJP looked mostly like to have the advantage, he was visibly disappointed. After a momentary pause, he almost instinctively shouted back: “But Kashmiris didn’t vote for them.” For the fear of being dragged into a protracted political debate, I tried to allay his fears by saying that the poll results were not out and there may well be a surprise in the offing. The relief on his face was unmistakable. The truth is that in the wake of the boycott by National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and with Congress rather reluctantly joining the fray, the obvious advantage goes to the party that was desperate to hold the polls in the first place.
I don’t want to draw a generalization from my neighbour’s remarks, but Kashmiris have grown restive over the saffron party’s unprecedented foray into the Kashmir politics. Cynicism about politics can easily be discerned from the casual conversations of people these days. The Kashmir-based pro-Delhi politicians, who use “political compulsions” as alibi to secure power, have played their part in dragging Kashmir into a state of perpetual pessimism.
Ahead of the 2014 Assembly elections in J&K, media reports suggested that BJP was banking on election boycott in Kashmir so that the migrant (Kashmiri Pandit) voters could give the party the numbers it needed to achieve its ambitious ‘Mission 44 ’. It was suggested that in case of a poll boycott, BJP stands benefitted.
Here we are again with the talk of BJP benefitting from boycott, this time ULB poll boycott by NC and PDP.
While making assumptions and drawing conclusions, we tend to forget that the main reasons for a person to vote in Kashmir may not be much different to the ones given by a voter elsewhere. The all-encompassing ‘development’ would perhaps top the agenda of a voter most of the times. Besides, politicians are same everywhere. They come up with promises too tempting to ignore. However, in Kashmir the political or ideological reasons can be as much important.
Just when everyone had thought that boycott will prevail in the 2014 assembly polls in the valley, the voting percentage turned out to be on the higher side. With the BJP’s aggressive ‘Mission 44 ” campaign in the valley, many people thought that Kashmiris came out to vote just to keep the rightwing party at bay especially after it raked up the hackneyed Article 370 debate.
Even senior separatist leader, Syed Ali Geelani seemed to believe so. Media reports quoted Geelani as saying: “People have voted only to stop BJP’s communal agenda to prevail in Kashmir. BJP is hell-bent to make inroads into Kashmir valley and spread their anti-Muslim policies here.”
A report published in ‘Hindustan Times’ by senior journalist Harinder Baweja suggested that separatist leaders adopted a deliberate go-slow approach to their poll boycott call to dent the BJP’s prospects in the Valley.
However, as it turned out, BJP managed to assume power in J&K for the first time by stitching an alliance with PDP.
Back to the ongoing ULB polls, BJP again holds the cards even as people may have hoped to keep it at bay. With the dismal turnout in the first three phases and both NC and PDP out of picture, BJP has a clear edge with some benefit also accrued to Congress.
The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give people a choice: they feel they are in control when they are actually serving somebody else’s interests.
In this backdrop, one may ask: is it fair to conclude that no matter what a Kashmiri voter decides, BJP would find a way to grab the spoils? After all, they voted to keep BJP out in 2014 only to see the party in power albeit with the help of an alliance and now even amid boycott by two major regional parties, it looks good to emerge victorious again. Given the way things have gone so far, this seemingly naïve argument looks quite plausible.