October 1, 2019 12:39:14 am
There is something of the surreal about Sunday’s announcement by the Jammu and Kashmir State Election Commission: Block Development Council elections will be held on “party lines” on October 24. According to this plan, the BDC polls will take place — for the first time in the state — at a juncture when restrictions imposed on citizens by the Centre since August 5 remain largely in place and political leaders continue to be detained, bringing to a standstill all political activity that calls for, and depends upon, the freedom of expression, movement and association. The panchs and sarpanchs, who form the electorate for the BDC polls, are also inhibited by these curbs. In fact, they have been especially affected, for longer. As this paper has reported, almost a year after the last round of J&K panchayat polls, many of these representatives of the people at the bottom-most tier of electoral democracy from different parts of the Valley continue to seek refuge in a hotel in uptown Srinagar as they are fearful of visiting their villages. Even before the current lockdown and communication blockade, this persistence of fear has served to underline the many questions of legitimacy that afflicted the electoral exercise at the end of which many seats of panch and sapanch in the Valley lie vacant, and most of those elected were elected unopposed.
Given that there has been little progress since then in empowering and enabling panchayati raj institutions, and in view of the heavy pall of anxieties and insecurities that has descended over the people and politicians in Kashmir now, the move to push ahead with the BDC polls raises serious questions about what that exercise could possibly achieve. But these questions are being stonewalled by the top echelons of government and the bottommost. The J&K Chief Electoral Officer, Shailendra Kumar, has sought to sweep the political questions under the administrative carpet. The state election commission, he said, is ready and willing to “facilitate” a level playing field, “whenever any candidate or political party approaches us”. The BDC polls cannot be preceded by bypolls to fill the vacant panch and sarpanch seats, he said, because that would require electoral roles to be prepared afresh. It is important to go ahead with the BDC polls because “at block level many development works have stopped and are not moving ahead”. And Union Home Minister Amit Shah has countered the questions about continuing restrictions in Kashmir by targeting the Opposition for the decades-old militancy in the state and the long imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah, by invoking the deaths of jawans, and of course, by blaming the “Himalayan” blunders of Jawaharlal Nehru.
In just over a month, the map of J&K is about to change. It is still not known to what extent the move has sparked opposition among the people most affected by it — that assessment can be made only after the restrictions on them are completely lifted. Undoubtedly, what is needed in J&K is a genuine political process with politicians on the ground, not in detention. The push to hold elections when the basic conditions of democracy are not met could only deepen public distrust.
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