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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER

Block Development Council Elections-2019 in Jammu and Kashmir

Saturday 21 December 2019

by Farooq Ahmad Waza

In its bid to restart the wheels of democracy in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir1 the State Administrative Council (SAC),2 headed by former Governor Satya Pal Malik, conducted elections to chairpersons of the intermediate panchayat—called Block Development Council (BDC)—in Jammu and Kashmir on October 24, 2019. The elections became due after the panchayat election was held in November-December 2018. However, the election got delayed (for multiple reasons) primarily due to the fragile security situation in the State. This was the first electoral exercise in the State after the Union Government revoked Articles 370 and 35-A and ended the special status of the State. The State was also bifurcated into two Union Territories (UTs), the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Union Territory of Ladakh. The transition to the UTs came into effect on October 31, 2019.

The BDC chairpersons are elected by an electoral college consisting of all elected panches and sarpanches falling within the block. Further, as per section 41 of the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989,3 only elected village panchayat representatives (panches and sarpanches) can contest the BDC chairperson elections. There are over 39,500 panch and sarpanch seats in the erstwhile undivided State of Jammu and Kashmir, but in the last panchayat election held in November 2018, a majority of the seats, 60 per cent (12,766 out of 21,208), in Kashmir remained vacant, around 30 per cent candidates won unopposed after people disowned the election and nobody turned to file his/her nomination papers.4

In all, there are 26,629 elected panchayat representatives, 18,316 male and 8313 women, falling within 316 Blocks of the State. The election was held in 310 Blocks only as six Blocks in Kashmir region are vacant owing to non-election of panchayat representatives in two Blocks and four reserved Blocks had no women candidates.

I. Election a Calculated Move

The decision to hold the election, in the crisis situation created by the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, however, was criticised given its timing and the ground situation in the State, especially in the Kashmir region. An undeclared emergency was imposed, all democratic norms were violated as the entire State was put under lockdown, mobile and internet services were snapped and restrictions were put on the movement of the people. The political leadership, except the BJP leadership, was put behind bars and among those were the three former Chief Ministers of the State. Even some sarpanches were also detained and denied both voting right as well as the opportunity to contest the election. Under these circumstances the election was an ‘imposed election’ aimed to give an impression in and outside the country that there is normalcy in Kashmir in the aftermath of abrogation of the special status of the State.

Although restrictions were lifted in the Jammu region and relaxed in a phased manner in Kashmir, the situation on the ground continues to remain grim with fear and uncertainty looming large. This put a question- mark on the legitimacy of holding elections when the people were denied even the basic rights that a democratic system entails. However, in a setback to the Central Government’s plank, the main Opposition party Congress, and two principal mainstream parties of the State the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party boycotted the election on the ground of the ongoing abnormal situation in the State and detention of their leaderships. The State Chief of Congress Ghulam Ahmed Mir (after his release in October prior to the elections) accused the State administration of deliberately creating a situation for mainstream political parties to stay away from the electoral exercise by not releasing their leaders; this, he said, was done to facilitate the victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates.5

However, neither the Central Government nor the Governor’s administration paid heed to the boycott by the main political parties. The BJP, instead, accused the Congress of furthering the agenda of Pakistan and Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir and urged the Election Commission of India to cancel the registration of the Congress.6 The BJP took the boycott as an opportunity to fill the space vacated by the main-stream parties and facilitate the rise of a new political leadership loyal to it and strengthen its foothold in the Kashmir Valley where the party has always struggled to hoist its flag. In order to justify the decision of the Central Government of holding election in a State where public mood and sentiments were against such an exercise, it advocated very strong theoretical arguments in favour of the election. Defending the decision of the Union Government the party maintained that the election was long due and necessary to strengthen grassroots democracy and empower the people to usher in the new era of participatory and inclusive governance. Further the holding of election is a prerequisite for the establishment of the three-tier panchayat raj system in the State to implement development initiatives and poverty alleviation programmes in a transparent and accountable manner with the people’s participation being Central to it.

II. The Verdict

In a surprise move the election was held on a party basis while the panchayat representatives were elected on a non-party basis in the panchayat elections-2018. However, boycott of the BDC election by political parties made it a straight contest between the BJP and Independent candidates in all Blocks in the State. In all 1065 candidates were in the fray and 27 won the election unopposed. In the Kashmir region 456 candidates filed their nomination papers; of them 56 belonged to the BJP and the rest were independent candidates. However, some of them enjoyed the support of political parties. In Handwara, a sub-division of the Kupwara district, Peoples Conference (PC) of Sajad Gani Lone fielded candidates for all blocks. The party had won the maximum village panchayat seats and it was reluctant to cede space to others. While some of the sarpanches affiliated with the Congress, NC and PDP also contested the election as Independent candidates on non-
party symbol.

Out of 282 Blocks that went to polls the Independent candidates demonstrated their strength by winning 217 seats and kept the BJP at bay. The BJP, that left no stone unturned to reach out to panchayat representatives to woo them into their fold, stood at the second place by winning 81 seats—18 in Kashmir, 52 in Jammu and 11 in Ladakh. Out of 18 seats in Kashmir, the BJP won 15 in four districts of South Kashmir mostly unopposed. The party won eight seats out of nine in South Kashmir’s Shopian district; all its candidates, who won unopposed, were migrant Kashmiri Pandits living in the Jammu region. The party failed to make inroads in three districts of North Kashmir. In Kupwara all 24 BDC chairperson seats were won by Independents (mostly by the PC-backed candidates) in Baramulla; out of 26 seats that went to the polls 25 were won by Independents, and one by the BJP; the party, however, failed to open its account in Bandipora district.

In the Ladakh region out of 31 BDC seats, independents won 20 seats while the BJP won 11 seats. There is no doubt that the BJP has made significant inroads in Ladakh; however, the results were well below its expectations. The party was expecting what it called a ‘thumping majority’ in return for making Ladakh a separate Union Territory, the long cherished objective of the people of Ladakh.

In the Jammu region out of 148 Block Panchayats Independents presented a formidable challenge by winning 88 seats and limited to a great extent the BJP’s prospects of filling the space vacated by the political parties that boycotted the elections. BJP won 52 BDC chairperson positions spreading in all ten districts of the region. The party also won 22 (out of 52) seats in the Muslim-majority districts of Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley sub-regions comprising five districts. The Jammu-based Panthers party won eight seats in its traditional bastion, Udhampur district. The BJP’s position in Jammu could have been much better given its rise since 2014; the party has penetrated very deep in the Jammu region and has consistently outclassed the Congress and other regional parties in both parliamentary and State Assembly elections. However, following the announcement of BDC elections its house was not in order as its official candidates faced rebellion from their own panchayat represen-tatives. The party expelled 14 rebels to crush the dissent; this could be one of the main reasons for the party’s below-expectation performance.

III. Challenges and Issues

The conduct of election is not an end but a means towards an end. There is no doubt that the first ever BDC election in the State is a step forward towards establishing a three-tier panchayat raj system in the State. This will in turn provide a crucial institutional structure to link the three-tier local government with administrative structure to create a synergy with the administrative set-up to move towards a bottom-up planning and development with inputs from grassroots voices. This necessitates a real empowerment of these institutions with requisite functions, funds and functionaries (3Fs) to strengthen institutional effectiveness of panchayats to fulfil their mandate and address the grievances of the people. Equally important challenge is the capacity building of the elected representatives and transferred staff to abreast them about their powers and responsibilities. Being new to this system capacity building is of critical importance. Providing a panchayat bhavan to each panchayat at the three levels should be a priority of the government. In the past the governments have failed to live up to this commitment in this regard and failed to provide a panchayat bhavan in each village. Gram Sabha (GS) has to be activated and strengthened to ensure institutionalisation of people’s participation and fix accountability to enforce transparency in the working of the system. Social audit will remain a slogan on paper unless the GS is not regularly convened and strengthened. This is still lacking despite panchayats having completed one year in office.

Given the absence of a well-functioning panchayat raj in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State it remains to be seen how the Centre will move towards effective democratic local governance system in the two newly created Union Territories. How will it create a conducive and enabling environment for the panchayati raj institutions to function amidst the complex security situation on ground especially in the Kashmir created by the August 5 decision when the Central government abrogated the special constitutional status of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir is a crucial challenge.

Notes

1.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address to the nation on August 15, 2018 from the ramparts of Red Fort announced that the Central Government was mulling to start the wheels of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir to give the people an opportunity to be a part of the development. Acting on the promise made by the Prime Minister the erstwhile State Administrative Council conducted elections to Village panchayats and Municipalities in the State in October-November 2018.

2. After the imposition of Governor’s rule and later Presidents rule, when the PDP-BJP coalition government fell on June 19, 2018, the then Governor N.N. Vohra constituted the State Administrative Council (SAC) consisting of the Governor as its chairman and his four advisors as its members. It is analogous to Council of Ministers headed by Chief Minister. In the SAC each Advisor had administrative departments under him. N.N. Vohra was later replaced by Satya Pal Malik as the Governor following former’s exit from the State. With the transition of state into two Union Territories (UTs) on October 31, 2019 the UT of Jammu and Kashmir and UT of Ladakh, the SAC was accordingly restructured on November 19, 2019 and now it is headed by a Lieutenant Governor and his two advisors. The Chief Secretary is the secretary to the SAC. The jurisdiction of the SAC now covers only the UT of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh has its own Lieutenant Governor.

3.  The erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir was exempted from the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 of the Indian Constitution in view of the special status it enjoyed in the Indian Union under Article 370. Panchayati Raj Institutions in the erstwhile State were governed under its own law called The Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989 (it has been amended multiple times till October 2018). The Act has not been repealed so far and the Two Union Territories Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh continue to be governed by the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989.

References

4. Hussain, Aijaz. India Holds Kashmir elections despite lockdown, Boycott, Washington Post, October 24, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-runs-kashmir-council-vote-despite-lockdown-and-boycott/2019/10/24/beac3118-f614-11e9-b... accessed on 1.11.2019.

5.   Sagotra, Yogesh. ‘Congress to Boycott BDC Polls’, Greater Kashmir October 10,2019,p.1.

6.  Shah Amjad Syed. Cancel registration of Congress for Boycotting BDC polls, Greater Kashmir October 11, 2019,p.1.

Dr Farooq Ahmed Waza is an independent researcher based in Kashmir. He can be contacted at farooq.plsc[at]gmail.com

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