The local body elections in Jammu & Kashmir have touched a new low even by the standards of the state’s bad history with polls. The boycott by the two mainstream regional parties, National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, had already put a damper on the process. But this is possibly the first time in India’s electoral history when the names of the candidates are being kept secret.
The official justification for this is that revealing them would place the candidates’ lives in danger and make them easy targets for militants. The elections to the municipal corporations, councils and committees will be held in four phases on October 8, 10, 13 and 16. There is no word yet on when the State Election Commission will release the names of the candidates, if it will at all. Naturally, there is no campaign yet. How free or fair is an election in which voters do not know who their candidates are?
Because of the boycott by the two parties and threats by the Hizbul Mujahideen, not many have come forward to contest this election. While 172 wards are going uncontested, there is only a single candidate in 190 wards. With the nominations process for the first three phases ending on Tuesday, the single candidates have already won the election, but even their names are not known to the general public or to the people in the wards they now represent. Such is the fear that they too have not come out in the open to claim victory.
For the last three years, the government has been playing down and contesting the extent and spread of militancy in the Valley. Now, the secrecy that surrounds even the most elementary details of this election is an extraordinary admission that the state is unable to guarantee the safety and security of those participating in the electoral process. It is also an admission that the government’s stick-and-stick policy in Kashmir has not worked. While breaking off from the ruling coalition with the PDP, the BJP was quick to blame its regional partner for the mess the state is in today.
But it is clear that the BJP’s failure to make a political outreach to the people of the Valley, and its insistence on viewing Kashmir purely through Hindutva lenses, are largely responsible for where Kashmir is today. Indeed, the BJP, which hold the reins at the Centre, has seemed unable to separate its own interests in Kashmir from the national interest. Amid the fast-changing geopolitics of the region, it has played with fire.
Indeed, the elections must be held. Failure to do so would be read as a surrender to the gun. The panchayat elections will be held in November and December after the urban local bodies. But no one should be surprised if these elections do not change anything on the ground.