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Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017

By-elections in Jammu and Kashmir: Where do they Lead to?

Monday 24 April 2017

by Gautam Sen

Jammu and Kashmir has just gone through a spell of by-elections affected by murder and mayhem, saturated deployment of security forces, huge public resistance to the electoral process and an atmosphere in which no reasonable display of will of the electorate was manifestly feasible. The by-elections were slated to the Anantnag and Srinagar Lok Sabha seats. Unprecedented public opposition to these elections and threats to those electors interested in voting, and intimidation and violence against the officials deployed for the polling brought down the polling percentage to seven, seven deaths of civilians occurred with scores injured. The by-election to Anantnag has been postponed and re-scheduled on May 25, 2017 in the light of widespread disturbances during the Srinagar poll. The by-election to the Srinagar parlia-mentary seat was held in a vitiated and violent atmosphere, impeding the election process to such an extent that the Election Commission of India had to perforce conduct re-poll in 38 polling booths subsequently on April 13, 2017. The voting percentage further declined in the re-poll.

The significant drop in polling percentage cannot go unnoticed. While the voting percentages were 25.90 and 28.84 in Srinagar and Anantnag respectively in the last parliamentary elections in 2014, the turnout was much higher in the 2016 State Assembly elections. Now, with the precipitous decline in the voters’ participation in these by-elections, the threat to the electoral democratic process is looming large in the State. Farooq Abdullah, the former Chief Minister and National Conference party leader, has won the Srinagar by-election with 58 per cent of the abysmally low 52,719 votes cast of a more than 12 lakh strong electorate of the parliamentary constituency. In a sense, this is a victory shorn of intrinsic electoral support because of the failure of the polity in Jammu and Kashmir and the electoral institution of India to deliver an outcome with the will of the people substantially declined.

While the State Government is presently functioning from the winter capital of the Jammu city, the State administration in the Srinagar Valley has been contending with the periodic political disturbances initiated by the Hurriyat factions and militants. The civic unrest in the Valley which started de-facto after the killing of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahidin leader, on July 8, 2016, did not effectively die down. Public violence against the civil administration, the security forces and de-facto against the Indian state has been on, with periodic lulls in between. In this backdrop, the by-elections were held to fill up vacancies resulting from the vacancies arising in the above-referred parlia-mentary seats consequent of Tariq Hamid Karra and Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party vacating the Srinagar and Anantnag seats won by them respectively in the 2014 general elections.

In normal circumstances, conduct of by-elections to fill up electoral vacancies, would have been a routine democratic phenomenon. However, what is normal seems to have become an extraordinary and exacting phenomenon in Jammu and Kashmir today. The apparent reason is that the mainstream political class of the State has become ineffective, cannot set the agenda for democracy and is functioning with a near-total hiatus from the masses or voters. The State administration is presently like a superstructure functioning without the confi-dence of those to be governed, and consequently denuded of its effectiveness. The Election Commission of India (ECI), therefore, cannot be blamed for its failure to conduct the by-elections with confidence, support and participation of the State‘s people and its electorate. It will be of interest to know the precise assessment of the Union Government and its Home Ministry on the State‘s electorate apropos the by-election process which apparently turned out to be an exercise bereft of the people’s whole-hearted participation.

The time has come to take stock of the realities of the prevailing situation of the State. Representative democratic institutions seem unable to function in the present circumstances. The prospective scenario is most depressing and does not bode well for Jammu and Kashmir and the country. A counter-narrative to the discourse set by the separatists and militants, is lacking and seems beyond the capacity of the State‘s mainstream political class to set. A few political elements like Mohammed Yusuf Taregami of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, Independent MLA Engineer Rashid, etc. could have acted like catalysts to negate the sense of alienation among the masses and Kashmiri youth in particular, but have failed to do so. They also did not get the requisite reinforcing support from fellow mainstream political elements in the State. In these circumstances, the Union Government should not shy away from hard decisions and reckon a spell of Governor’s Rule as an inescapable option for some time.

There is a need to de-link the political objectives of the mainstream national parties at the national level with those in the State’s perspective. This may appear unrealistic but may be unavoidable if national interest is to be accorded due priority or precedence. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is part of the ruling dispensation in the State, has a primary responsibility to set the trend in the above regard. But the issue is whether it will do so. It may be difficult for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to adopt a dichotomous approach on the above lines because it does not have a national presence and has to compete with the Hurriyat factions for the same political constituency in the State. The political dilemma is substantial for both the BJP and PDP. Unless they break out of the present mould in which they are functioning in Jammu and Kashmir, the decay of democracy in the State cannot be halted with attenuation of the State’s linkage with the Indian state and polity. The threats emanating from radicalisation of the milieu in the adjoining areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the Kashmir Valley, cannot be countered without an approach on the above lines. Reliance on the instrumentality of the security apparatus at the disposal of the Indian state is unlikely to reverse the decline of democracy and the State’s rightful place in the Indian Union.

Governor‘s Rule may not be a long-term panacea. But, it may be the only viable option to deal with the intractable political situation which has developed in Jammu and Kashmir over the past two years. The ECI, in the present circumstances, should take a pragmatic view of the political and internal security milieu, and consider freezing the election process for at least a year, reckoning the low level of public morale. Going through the motion of the electoral process in an environment where the will of the electorate cannot be expressed substantively in an unfettered manner, will only serve to erode the democratic process without any gain for the Indian state in a true sense. Prospects for starting a worthwhile dialogue between those alienated from the democratic process and the State’s integrated status with the Indian Union, and the Union Government may be better with a seasoned Governor like N. N. Vohra running the State administration.

The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions of the Government of India, a State Government and also in Jammu and Kashmir. The views expressed here are the author‘s own.

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