Amid the debate in Parliament over the dissolution of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and subsequent imposition of President’s rule on Thursday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement that the Union government was willing and ready to assist the Election Commission (EC) to conduct polls in the state alongside the Lok Sabha elections is a welcome signal of intent. The space for democratic politics has shrunk considerably in the Valley over the last few years. In this backdrop, and given the complicated security concerns, the conduct of polls would certainly require, and depend upon, a firm political commitment from the Centre. Having said that, however, the Union government, as well as other political actors in the state, must bear in mind that intent alone may not be sufficient to bridge the widening chasm between participatory elections and the people of Kashmir.
Ever since the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in 2016, a grim cycle made up of people’s protests, militancy and the actions of security forces has dented the legitimacy of mainstream politics in the Valley. Anantnag, the erstwhile Lok Sabha constituency of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, is one of the longest delayed bypolls — it has been vacant since July 2016, when Mufti vacated it to become CM. The EC has been unable to hold that election due to security concerns. The Lok Sabha bypoll in Srinagar held in 2017 recorded less than 7 per cent turnout and in the municipal elections in the city in October 2018, only 2.3 per cent of the electorate cast their ballot. With the collapse of the BJP-PDP alliance, the hope of a political middle ground opening up as a result of the union of ideological opposites has faded. The decision by Governor Satya Pal Malik to ignore the claim to form a government by the PDP, National Conference and Congress, may have helped underline the perception that state politics is subservient to Delhi’s agenda and whim.
Now, with the Lok Sabha polls beckoning, the central government needs to reassure Kashmir and the rest of India that the expression of the people’s voice will be enabled and that it is indeed paramount. From a security perspective, this is a challenge, as the situation in Anantnag bears testimony. But a related and even greater task is to ensure that elections are also representative. This will require concerted political action, and a conversation that draws in the people and goes beyond the security discourse. It will require not merely the intent to hold elections but a reaching out with actions and gestures. This could mean involving those stakeholders in the Valley, for instance, the Hurriyat Conference, that are not currently part of the electoral process. And, a positive engagement with Pakistan’s overtures. There needs to be an election in Kashmir, of course, but also a political breakthrough.