Many people are trying to make sense of the recently concluded elections to district development councils (DDCs) in Jammu & Kashmir, a practice that does not exist anywhere else in the country. At best of times it’s not easy to comprehend the complexities that go with events in J&K; there is invariably a political, diplomatic or security-related fallout. These elections can be viewed through the structural reform and administrative advantage they bring, the political fallout of the electoral exercise, and the security spin-off.
It’s clear that by adding another layer between the panchayats and the legislative Assembly, it’s essentially an experiment to empower the grassroots, as authorised by the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, and under J&K Panchayati Raj Rules, 1996, of the Constitution of India. In a region where separatist trends have been prevalent, one of the better ways of defeating them is by more political and executive empowerment at the lower levels, while ensuring there is no corruption.
The additional district development commissioner will be the CEO of the DDC with the chairman being an elected member. Having an elected third tier of the Panchayati Raj institution marks the implementation of the entire 73rd Amendment Act in J&K, which was never made effective by previous governments. The other addition is that the district planning process has been handed over directly to the elected representatives as against the practice of deputy commissioners initiating this. It could be a recipe for good governance provided the DDC members are formally trained in their duties. Only time and the degree of seriousness with which the state administration ultimately handles this will finally decide the success or failure. Yet, it’s a bold experiment in a conflict-ridden region with a partially estranged population that has seen little grassroots politics for 30 years; thus self-empowerment at the lower levels of administration could be an effective antidote.
The successful elections conducted in a peaceful environment have been a slap in the face of Pakistan, which has been attempting to paint India in a bad light all over the world. There can be no better demonstration of Indian democracy than the high percentage of electoral turnout. The result is not as important with both the BJP and the seven-party People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) claiming victory with the number of seats that they have secured. What the PAGD should remember is that these were ‘bread and butter’ elections and treating them as a referendum on Article 370 will fetch it no dividends in the long run. The latter has been nullified by a legislative Act of Parliament, an action as democratic as the exercise being carried out in J&K. These elections are acting as an interim electoral exercise in the long gap between the dismissal of the last elected government and the subsequent Assembly polls after the exercise of delimitation, thus assuaging negativity and adding to India’s democratic credentials. Such an exercise helps to keep sentiments in check and appropriately message the international community that is always being subjected to Pakistan’s propaganda.
The election result continues to be a reiteration of the old narrative with Kashmir’s DDCs under PAGD leadership and the DDCs in Jammu region except the Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley belt with the BJP. Some of the Chenab Valley areas and the Pir Panjal where the outcome is divided will witness some political jostling. This political divide has never suited either governance or state politics. What the leaders will need to do is work on bringing the people of Kashmir and Jammu regions closer, an exercise that can be achieved but clearly needs external stimulus and some consensus joint leadership, which is missing. The BJP has made its nascent entry into the Valley with three seats that it hopes it can expand upon along the road to the Assembly elections at least two years away.
What one should fear is a repeat of history, something that happens in J&K once too often. We witnessed good elections in 2008 followed by two years of violence in the streets. We then conducted the first panchayat polls in 2011 with astoundingly high turnout figures but this too was frittered away in the wake of the Burhan Wani wave and subsequent events that took J&K back a couple of years. The DDC elections have created a space for goodwill that must be exploited through a deliberate outreach. The BJP is sensing opportunity and on that could ride hope for a hands-on campaign to go to the people in an unending town hall-style of interactions. A lot depends on how the PAGD progresses in terms of unity. It could press for restoration of statehood as a positive agenda but if it continues to harp on restoration of Article 370, this agenda could be hijacked by anti-national elements with unpredictable consequences.
From the security point of view, just remember that ever since 5 August 2019, the absence of politics has facilitated the security forces and the intelligence agencies in neutralising several over ground worker (OGW) networks. That process is not yet over but it has ensured an almost total domination over the counter terrorist (CT) grid; success through 2020 can largely be attributed to this. The separatists have been marginalised but are not down and out. The return of grassroots politics many times facilitates low-profile OGWs and through them the energisation of the terror grid. Pakistan awaits such a situation when the 4G networks can no longer be denied activation. A high-profile proxy campaign such as that of targeting policemen and their families in 2017-18 could again reactivate separatism and terror.
The period between the DDC and Assembly elections is a crucial one in J&K. What we cannot afford any longer is a surge in terrorist influx by infiltration or recruitment. The Army is doing well on the counter infiltration grid and in its engagement of youth programs. It can do a lot more by facilitating intra-state cooperation and interaction besides also grassroots stabilisation of political activity without interference— simply through creation of a secure and cooperative environment.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir