Channels that project themselves as “nationalist” have given relatively scant primetime coverage to the extremely important round of by-elections that have just been completed in Jammu and Kashmir. There was some coverage when the eight-phase election process began in November, but it tapered off thereafter.
Although they were by-elections and only for local bodies, they were pretty comprehensive, because the majority of seats in panchayats and municipalities across the mountain area were vacant.
More important, directly elected district development boards are being simultaneously elected. This new experiment appears to have caught the imagination of people at large, for large numbers filed nominations, and very large numbers voted. Even the terror-affected south Kashmir saw energetic canvassing and relatively brisk polling, except in Pulwama district.
Of course, the biggest reason these by-polls are so important is that it is the first time elections are being held after Jammu and Kashmir was reduced to a truncated union territory, and lost its special constitutional status on August 5, 2019.
The entire political class of the state was silenced that day. A very large number of politicians, including three former chief ministers, were locked up for several months thereafter. These elections are the first opportunity they have had to test their popularity — and that of their opposition to the changes.
A host of the parties that had been silenced, including the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party, and even the Congress, decided to contest these elections in alliance, dividing up seats between them. The sharing did not work perfectly, as several “rebel” candidates threw their hats into the ring, even rebels from the party that was given the ticket for a particular seat. Still, the grouping — called the — has pulled its weight and is expected to fare very well in the valley and the Chenab basin and make a creditable showing even in Hindu-dominated areas of the state nearer Jammu.
The BJP has put a lot of effort into contesting these elections. So has the new Apni Party led by former minister Altaf Bukhari. Both have spent large amounts of money.
The BJP will surely win a number of seats in the Jammu province, but seems unlikely to sweep the polls there the way its leaders may have hoped. Many, even in Hindu-dominated areas, are dissatisfied regarding the promises that were made at the time of the constitutional changes.
The fact that coverage by “nationalist” television channels tapered off as these vital elections progressed is one indicator that the BJP’s managers assessments of those early phases might not have indicated a very encouraging result when votes are counted on Tuesday. Contrast the relative silence on these elections with the high-decibel hoopla that surrounded coverage of the recent Hyderabad municipal elections.
Campaign speeches of a Farooq Abdullah or a Mehbooba Mufti would surely have been newsworthy at this juncture. Additionally, election campaigns in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir offer outstanding visual footage.
Small parties added colour
Since a large number of independents were in the fray, and a few smaller parties too put up candidates, these elections were far more colourful than might have been expected from a round of local body polls.
Indeed, when elections were called, it in light of terror attacks, many of which had targeted previously elected panches and municipal councillors. Some even feared then that these elections might turn out the same way as those that were held in late 2018, a few months after governor’s rule was imposed on the erstwhile state. Very few people contested, and polling was abysmal in most places in the valley.
One seat in the Shopian municipality was won with zero votes by a Pandit living in Jammu. Uncontested, she did not go to Shopian even to vote for herself. Most of Shopian’s other municipal councillors, the few that were elected then, are likewise Jammu-based Pandits.
At least the contrast with that round should have egged TV producers to cover these elections extensively. But, of course, for that, public enthusiasm would have to matter more than one or other particular party’s prospects.
Contrast with 2018 boycott
The elections in 2018 were boycotted by the state’s major parties, acting severally then. Their decision to participate this time is arguably the reason why so many others have both contested and voted.
It’s like a signal that the process is kosher — almost as if this grouping had subtly replaced the Hurriyat Conference, at least in a limited way. There have been remarkably few terror attacks during these elections, which might indicate that some militants too have got the message that this is kosher.
Exploring the extent to which that subtle shift has or has not occurred should itself have been an important news peg.
While the PAGD alliance is expected to win most of the seats on offer in the Kashmir valley, it will be worth watching the margins of victory, and how many seats they are able to win in each district council. The number of seats each constituent party wins will no doubt influence how independently each party charts its course henceforth. Also worth watching over time will be the extent to which each party is able to control those of its members who win seats on district boards. Parties might find it tougher to control district boards than their contingents in a centralised assembly.
On the other hand, backers as well as opponents will keenly watch how the BJP fares on both vote and seat shares in the Jammu division of the union territory. No doubt, Bukhari of the Apni Party will be happy if his nominees are able to win several seats, although these might be sprinkled across some districts.
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