The successful completion of the District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir is indicative of the Narendra Modi government’s resolve to return power to the people on the one hand and the resolve of the people of the UT to turn to democratic decentralisation to achieve better governance and development on the other. The elections saw enthusiastic participation of both the people and political parties. Except in the terror hotbeds of Pulwama and Shopian, the voter turnout ranged from 25 per cent to 51 per cent in the other eight districts in the Valley. The panchayat raj laws are made by states based on the 64th Amendment to the Constitution that introduced the Panchayat Raj Act.
Various interpretations can be given to the election outcome. Some will be debatable claims, while some facts will remain conspicuous. There could be some welcome signs and some warning signals. It is necessary to look at all these dispassionately. The very fact that such a big election was completed peacefully with enthusiastic participation from both sides should silence many critics about the lack of political freedom in J&K. The BJP’s rise as a pan J&K party and the single-largest party, securing more votes than the combined votes of the Gupkar group, is a vindication of its growing acceptability across the UT.
The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), popularly known as the Gupkar group, has been able to win majority seats in the Valley and some in the Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley regions of Jammu. However, despite the coming together of the mainstream Valley parties like the NC, PDP and PC, the voters didn’t give them overwhelming support in the Valley’s 140 seats. In 31 places, voters opted for independents while in another 30 places, they voted for the non-PAGD candidates. Hence, it is over-exuberance on the part of the Gupkar leaders to declare that it was a victory for their agenda. Gupkar’s biggest failure was in Srinagar, where it managed to win just three seats. Srinagar has traditionally been the bastion of the Abdullahs, but the voters this time rejected them.
The BJP will finally control six DDCs while the Gupkar group will have a chance in a few more. The rest will depend on independents and smaller parties. The Gupkar leaders were hoping for a landslide victory in the Valley. But the people preferred credible candidates to work for local development than high-profile party apparatchiks working only on emotional agendas like the restoration of Article 370. All political parties must accept this message with humility.
These elections were made possible through an amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act 1989 of the erstwhile J&K Constitution, which preceded the national act by six months. The amendment had facilitated the UT administration to conduct these elections through universal adult franchise.
Haseeb Drabu, former J&K Minister, raised objections to this practice calling it as against the federal spirit of the Indian Constitution (‘Junior MLA, senior panch’, IE, December 24). Although it is heartening to see the Kashmiri leader’s insistence on adherence to the Indian Constitution in letter, his allusion to the DDCs as “District Assemblies” is an exaggeration. India’s federal polity is based on a two-tier election system — state assemblies and Parliament — not a three-tier one. Elections to the local bodies are conducted by the state election commissions independently under state laws.
In J & K, the need for greater decentralisation was emphasised by Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference during the agitation years against the Maharaja. It had accepted a political manifesto in 1944 called ‘Naya Kashmir’. Article 45 of the manifesto called for “people’s panchayats” at the district, block and village level to represent the state power. After the Indira-Sheikh Accord in 1975, the manifesto was redrafted in 1976. It promised to provide regional autonomy and further decentralise political power through “appropriate institutional arrangements at the district, block and village levels”.
Balraj Puri, the eminent political commentator from J&K, who was involved in the drafting of the manifesto, reasoned eloquently about the need for greater devolution of powers through decentralisation highlighting the diversity in the state. “A Muslim majority state within a Hindu majority country, a Hindu majority region within a Muslim majority state, Muslim majority districts within Hindu majority region, Hindu majority blocks within Muslim majority districts and Muslim majority villages within Hindu majority blocks” — this was how Puri described the profile of J& K.
Subsequently, the process of devolution of powers happened in the state under the 1989 Act. District Development Boards were constituted to oversee the development plans of the respective districts. However, these bodies were filled with unelected leaders, or ex officio members like the MLAs and MPs. Bureaucrats have dominated the executive authority in these bodies.
J&K’s tragedy has been that it became a prisoner of a few political families and a few dozen legislators. Grass roots leadership was never allowed to rise. As a result, people remained largely powerless and at the mercy of a few leaders. Empowering the village panchayats was started by the UT administration a couple of years ago encouraging the rise of a new-generation leadership at the grass roots. The welcome change affected now to empower the DDCs with elected representatives is going to further that process and help address developmental needs in a big way. Realising this opportunity, people too participated in the elections enthusiastically defying terrorist threats and intimidations.
The BJP has clearly emerged as the key player in the UT along with the Gupkar group. However, the party and the government need to take a cautious note of the deepening divisions within the UT along the Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2020, under the title “An election, a vindication”. The writer is member, board of governors, India Foundation