With the successful conduct of elections to the District Development Councils (DDC) in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP has made its point. Within a year of stripping the state of its special status, it is back to electoral politics as usual. Not only did all the regional mainstream parties participate after threatening not to, voter participation was not too bad either — the Valley has seen much worse. So too the incidence of violence. In popular perception, the BJP has managed the expected aftermath of abrogation well and of course, leveraged it very well, domestically.
In the results of the election, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) has also made its point — loud and clear. Notwithstanding it being an amalgam of adversaries, PAGD has done very well. More importantly, not just in the Valley but also in parts of the Jammu province — the Pir Panjal region and the Chenab valley. As such, both sides have reason to feel vindicated.
For the moment, the Valley-centric mainstream political parties have at least redeemed themselves in their own eyes; redemption in the eyes of the people is still some distance away. In the Valley, more than a vote for PAGD, it is a vote against the BJP. As such, it may be too early for the PAGD to celebrate its victory, though the National Conference has more reason to smile than its old adversary and new associate, the Peoples’ Democratic Party. The high percentage of independents winning, even if many of these are mainstream party proxies, has kept the end-game open. Overall, the results reflect extreme polarisation along regional and religious lines.
The real issue being subsumed in the electoral politics is the creation of a new and unique layer of elected representatives — a junior MLA or a senior Panch, depending on how one looks at it. What does this mean not only for the politics of Kashmir, but also for the institutional structure of Indian parliamentary democracy wherein citizens directly elect representatives to only three tiers of governance provided for in the Constitution — Parliament, legislative assemblies and the panchayats/ULBs? Unlike anywhere else in the country, another governance layer — the DDC — is being directly elected in J&K. These are not even statutory bodies, having been created by amending the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 through executive fiat. By electing 14 members each to 20 DDCs, the existing architecture of legislative democracy in J&K has been redesigned.
In fact, the DDCs are virtual “district assemblies”, which are neither provided for in the Constitution of India nor is the direct mode of election stipulated. Yet the DDCs have been put atop the third tier of governance. No wonder, then, that this kind of model doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country. Were it to be replicated all over the country, there will be 718 district assemblies in addition to 30 state/UT assemblies! A new federal system.
In all other states, members to district boards are elected by a council of sarpanches representing the panchayats. This indirect election of district board members by the sarpanches provides the only institutionalised link and authority between democratic decentralisation and the developmental administration. This critical link has now been snapped in the new framework of governance in J&K.
The direct election to the DDCs is problematic for a variety of reasons. First, it violates a basic tenet of democracy, that of, “one person one vote”. The cardinal principle of delimiting the parliamentary or legislative constituencies is that anyone living in any part of the country will have the same weightage in electing representatives. Even in the case of panchayats, the area is divided in such manner that the ratio between the population of each panchayat constituency and the number of seats allotted to it is the same to the extent practicable.
On the contrary, no matter how large or small a district is in terms of its geography or demography, it has the same number of elected representatives in the DDC. So, for instance, with a population over 12 lakh, the Srinagar district has 14 representatives, so does Kishtwar with a population of less than 2.5 lakh. In terms of area, nearly 9,000 sq km of Doda and barely 250 sq km of Ganderbal are at par. Nowhere in the country is there such a wide variation in the per capita representative power.
Second, direct elections to the DDC will undermine the primacy of the sub-national legislative assembly (UT at present or state in the future) as the representative of the people. To the extent that it does so, these elected DDCs will disempower the core of the second tier of the federal system. Every state in India, and indeed every subnational government in the world, has a constitutional position, a legislative competence, a developmental role and an administrative authority. In Kashmir, the distinctions are fast losing their meaning.
Backed by the democratic authority of having been elected directly by the people, the DDCs, individually and collectively, have the potential to become an institution parallel to the state assembly. It should not be difficult to see how these 20 “district assemblies” with 280 bush-league MLAs will provide the institutional structure to nullify or negate the state assembly on key political issues, as also the development strategy. It is a system that has been designed to undermine the legislative assembly of the state, as and when it is resuscitated to life.
Also, there is an obvious realpolitik purpose which the formation of directly elected DDCs will serve. This new system, given its positioning and powers, will over time change the political discourse; from autonomy, shared sovereignty and identity issues towards local developmental and quotidian issues. As such, politics will not be driven by Kashmir versus Delhi fighting for political power. Instead, it will be Jammu versus Kashmir for primacy in decision making or Poonch versus Pulwama for allocations; in other words, manageable demands.
From a federal perspective, a framework of disempowerment is being created in the garb of decentralisation. Far from being proto-democratic bodies strengthening grassroots democracy, it is the atomisation of electoral-representative democracy. This new system cuts into development and its delivery by the local self-government whose remit and mandate has been compromised. This takes the issue beyond the boundaries of Kashmir.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 24, 2020 under the title “Junior MLA, senior Panch”. The writer is the former finance minister of J&K
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