The District Development Council (DDC) polls, the first electoral exercise in J&K after its special status was abrogated and the erstwhile state was downgraded into a pair of Union Territories last year, aimed to achieve two key goals. One, normalise the Centre’s monumental moves on August 5, 2019. Two, steer the political discourse towards village development by presenting the newly elected councillors as arbitrators between the people and the administration.
And mark out each of the 20 districts as a separate political unit, thereby initiating the replacement of the traditional political players.
Whether these objectives have been achieved is open to debate. What’s clear is that the exercise compelled arch regional rivals National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, and Peoples Conference to form a coalition – the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) – and make the Centre’s August 5 decision, rather than just local development, as the main issue to rally their supporters.
Now that the verdict is in, the polls have sharpened faultlines, as the PAGD has won largely in Muslim-majority areas while the BJP has retained its dominance in Hindu-majority Jammu. This faultline mirrored the one on August 5, as opposition to and support for the Centre’s move followed this regional demarcation.
It is also clear that the newly floated party of former legislators, mostly from the PDP, J&K Apni Party, which had the blessings of the Centre, couldn’t convince people that development — and not a political fight for restoration of J&K’s special status — was the way forward. There is, however, one unintended silver lining: the polls provide the Centre an opportunity to listen to the clear message from the people. For, on the ground, even though the PAGD wasn’t allowed to campaign as freely as the BJP, its supporters came out to vote in significant numbers because they saw, in the results of these elections, a virtual referendum on August 5.
The traditional support bases of the parties that form PAGD were also convinced that the BJP needed to be kept out of the new political setup. But now that PAGD has won a substantial chunk of DDC seats, they will have to contend with the challenges ahead. Not least because the DDCs have little to do with state-level politics and their newly elected members have little role beyond overseeing developmental programmes in their respective districts.
In this situation, it is going to be a difficult task for PAGD to respond to the expectations generated by these results.
The polls, and especially the results, have, however, opened a space for them. A senior PAGD leader said: “There may not be a forum like the Assembly where political issues can be raised. They may not have votes to pass any law. No one can stop them from talking and raising political issues, however. If chairpersons of a dozen districts issue a strong political statement, it will have its value.”
Moreover, he pointed out, these “fresh faces” cannot be as easily discredited as established leaders of the mainstream parties. “Most of these people have no past. They haven’t signed any files as ministers,” the leader said. “It will be very difficult to dismiss them as corrupt and insignificant. They will talk politics. They will keep on raising August 5; our politics will stay relevant. The aim of these polls was to replace traditional parties like NC, PDP, PC, Congress which are opposed to BJP and its policies in J&K. That has failed.”
He argued that the Centre has two ways to look at the results: “They can abandon this project halfway because it didn’t go according to their wishes. Or they can build on it – allow us space and listen to us. If they listen to the ground, that can bring respite to the people.”
The polls have also been an appraisal of the players introduced by the Centre to help fill the political vacuum in J&K. A former minister said: “A group of elected DDC members can protest outside Raj Bhawan or civil secretariat against a government policy that they think is not good. The government cannot wish them away. These newly elected people cannot be detained like a large number of mainstream politicians were jailed last year.”
The newly elected DDCs may have a limited mandate but they have brought politics back to the centrestage. How the Centre will respond to this politics will determine the way ahead for J&K.