Surprisingly, the Election Commission announced block level polls in the conflict-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir last week. They will be held in 310 blocks on October 24. This is indeed an adventurous experiment in the troubled state, particularly after the revocation of Article 370 two months ago. Normalcy is yet to return. If all goes to plan, these will be the first block development council elections in the history of Jammu and Kashmir.
Why go for block level elections now? There is a plan to this development as the government hopes that new leadership would emerge after these local body elections, which could release the state from the grip of the Abdullahs and Muftis. The BJP also hopes to increase its presence in the bifurcated state. It is a signal that the Assembly polls are not expected any time soon even though the Assembly has been under suspended animation since last year. The Modi government is facing two difficult and thorny issues to explain to the domestic and international audience – Kashmir and the sliding economy.
While Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced a slew of measures to tackle the economy, the government needs some face-saving measures in Kashmir. What better way than to hold polls – even block-level polls to tell the world that democracy is not dead as is being alleged by the opposition and also by Pakistan? It is clear that while the Prime Minister has been successful in asserting in the international arena that the abrogation of Article 370 is an internal affair, concerns are expressed about the continuing detention of local political leaders for more than two months and about the fact that people are not able to live normally.
Even Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been crying hoarse that democracy is dead in Jammu and Kashmir and sought to internationalise the Kashmir issue in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week. It is for the government to address these concerns. The announcement of the polls and release of political leaders in Jammu this week are the first step towards this. Several released leaders claim that they were warned not to trigger any political storm after their release.
As there is also a communication clampdown for the past 60 odd days with no phones and Internet working, it was expected that PM Modi’s speech at the UN last month might give some hints. After weighing the pros and cons, the government has chosen the path of democracy as its best bet. Jammu and Kashmir has a threetier panchayat system. The base is the halqa panchayats, the second is the block development councils and the third is the district board comprising local legislators, chairmen of block development councils and heads of other civic bodies. The government was encouraged by last year’s panchayat polls, though the two regional parties – the National Conference and PDP – had boycotted it.
The panchayat elections were held on non-party basis in October last year. The polls were held with a view to unlock Rs 2,700 crore awarded to the state under he 14th Finance Commission. It could not be disbursed earlier as there were no local body polls in the state since 2010. Secondly, the government wanted to ensure real devolution of power to empower local bodies. Thirdly, it was hoped that the panchayat bodies would ensure some kind of peace and prevent infiltration by terrorists in the upcoming winter months. Nearly 24 per cent (12,766) of the posts of panches and sarpanches are vacant.
While the Valley is volatile, the local representatives are feeling quite uneasy. Unfortunately even a year after they had been elected in the panchayat polls, the representatives have not been able to visit their areas. The decision of the Election Authority to hold first-ever Block Development Council (BDCs) polls in Jammu and Kashmir on party basis has evoked sharp criticism from stakeholders and opposition parties. The Congress has questioned the decision at a time when the leaders of all political parties, except the BJP, had been detained. They criticise the measure as a mockery of democracy when most leaders of the mainstream parties and local leaders have been in detention for the past two months.
The question is whether holding of the panchayat polls at this point of time will bring down the temperature in Jammu and Kashmir. While Jammu may not pose a problem, the valley will pose challenges. Is the government doing the right thing at the right time or is the timing not ripe for such polls is the million-dollar question. It is indeed a good strategy to revive the gross root level bodies if polls could be held freely and peacefully.