Counting of over 30 lakh ballots is underway for the first-ever District Development Council elections held across the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The eight-phase elections for the 280 territorial constituencies in 20 districts (10 each in Kashmir and Jammu) was also the first electoral exercise carried out in Jammu and Kashmir since the constitutional changes revoking the former state’s special status took shape.
Among the 2178 candidates in the fray, BJP has the highest, 183 candidates in the contest by any single party. The NC, PDP, PC, CPIM and JKPM combine together known as the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) fielded over 220 candidates across districts. Meanwhile, co-signatory to the Gupkar declaration, but not part of the Alliance, Congress, had 118 candidates in the fray.
BJP is followed by 134 from the newly formed J&K Apni Party and then the 132 from the National Conference, 67 in the Kashmir region. The Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP has 63 candidates, the majority of which (52) are in the valley. People’s Conference headed by Sajad Lone has 11 candidates in the fray, all within Kashmir. The CPIM also had seven candidates in the fray for this year’s DDC elections. Additionally, there are over 1000 independents contesting for a place in the DDCs.
One candidate, JKAP’s Anis ul Islam came under attack but survived while another, PDP’s Waheed ur Rehman Para was taken into NIA custody five days after he filed his nomination papers.
The J&K Assembly was dissolved over two years ago, five months after the BJP withdrew support to the Mehbooba Mufti government at the helm in the erstwhile state. After months of the President’s rule, the Centre revoked J&K’s special status by abrogating Article 370 and Article 35A from the Constitution of India and downgrading the state to a Union Territory, with an assembly.
The DDC polls hold significance since in the absence of elected representatives this is the first exercise to elect representatives to a governing body since the 2014 Assembly elections. The Ministry of Home Affairs on October 16 through an amendment to the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, provided for the establishment of the DDCs.
This system effectively replaces the District Planning and Development Boards in all districts and will prepare and approve District plans and use of capital expenditure. The key feature, however, is that the DDCs will have elected representatives from each district. Their number has been specified at 14 elected members per district representing its rural areas alongside the Members of Legislative Assembly chairpersons of all Block Development Councils within the district.
More than a dozen former legislators are contesting the polls who have said, that at the time developmental activities will have to be prioritised “since people are suffering and have no one to turn to.” This is a sentiment often repeated on the ground, where people cite loss of livelihood during the initial clampdown following August 5, 2019, and then the lockdown following the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as administrative inertia and seek local representatives to address issues.
The J&K administration has argued that the move to have an elected third tier of Panchayati Raj institution marks the implementation of the entire 73rd Amendment in J&K. The idea is that systems that had been made defunct by earlier J&K governments such as the Panchayati Raj system are being revived under the Centre’s rule in the state through the Lieutenant Governor’s administration.
The political mainstream of J&K, which refrained from participating in the Panchayat elections of 2018, did contest the DDC polls with the view that political space cannot be ceded to the BJP and that “institutions cannot be left unattended.”
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