Block Development Council elections: Another shock for the BJP

Print edition : November 22, 2019

A sarpanch casting his vote in the Block Development Council election at B.K. Pora in Budgam district on October 24. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Girish Chandra Murmu being sworn in as the first Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir in Srinagar on October 31, the day the State officially became a Union Territory. Photo: PTI

The Modi government tried to portray that its decision to abrogate Article 370 was received warmly in Jammu and Kashmir, but the outcome of the Block Development Council elections, with the BJP winning only 81 of the 307 blocks, proves otherwise. By Anando Bhakto

In contrast to its handsome show in the election to the six Lok Sabha seats of unified Jammu and Kashmir held in April-May, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in for a rude shock in the Block Development Council (BDC) elections held in the divided Jammu and Kashmir on October 25. This despite the fact that the BJP claimed that its decision to abrogate the erstwhile State’s special status on August 5 was received warmly in the Jammu region, where the predominantly Hindu population harbours aspirations that are dissimilar to those of the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which has been overwhelmed by three decades of militancy and is generally responsive to political idioms such as “autonomy” and “self-rule”. In the BDC elections, 1,065 candidates were in the fray across 22 districts.

In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP won the Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh seats, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) the Anantnag and Baramulla seats, and the National Conference (N.C.) the Srinagar seat. The Ladakh region has since become a Union Territory. In Jammu, the BJP’s candidate, Jugal Kishore, retained the seat by trumping Raman Bhalla of the Congress by 3,02,875 votes, and in Udhampur, Union Minister Jitendra Singh, the incumbent MP, defeated the Congress’ Vikramaditya Singh by a margin of 3.5 lakh votes.

Against this backdrop, it was expected that the BDC elections would be a cakewalk for the saffron party, more so because it was the only major political party in the fray. The Congress, the N.C. and the PDP stayed away from the electoral exercise saying that the environment was not conducive to elections. There has been a near-total lock-down in the Valley since August 5, communication lines have remained partially restricted, the Internet is suspended, and the entire political leadership is in detention.

When the results for the 307 blocks started coming in, the BJP’s tally was limited to a dismal 81, and the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party won eight. In all, 217 independent candidates were elected, mostly at the expense of the BJP. The 307 BDC chairpersons were elected by 26,629 sarpanches and panches of Jammu and Kashmir, who were elected last year in a direct election. The election of the panches and sarpanches was not without its share of controversy given that the PDP and the N.C. did not participate in the 2018 local body elections and the turnout, at least in the Valley, was below expectations.

Tanveer Sadiq, political secretary of former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, told Frontline at that time: “Democracy is about participation, not election. When the N.C. and the PDP, which together command the majority of MLAs in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, were not in favour of holding elections, what was the utility of this exercise?”

The government was quick to portray the BDC elections as a validation of its August 5 decision to revoke Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which guaranteed, among other things, semi-autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir and prohibited the purchase of land by non-State subjects. Its public relations arms dominated the social media space and, worryingly, even a section of the print media, where stories highlighting a staggering 98 per cent turnout were run without much scrutiny. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded his regime as he linked the near-total turnout to people’s enthusiasm for their “democratic rights”.

“I once again congratulate MPs across party lines on the historic decisions on J&K. It would make India’s Parliament proud that due to their historic decision in August this year, the people of J&K have been able to exercise their democratic right with exceptional enthusiasm, as seen in the historic turnout of 98 per cent, that too without violence or disturbance,” Modi said in a tweet on October 25.

The chief objective behind such reports and the Prime Minister’s tweet was to give the domestic audience the false impression that the government’s August 5 decision had achieved greater “integration” of Kashmiris, who are now more willing than ever to be part of the democratic processes of the country.

However, Modi’s “98 per cent” was, as a close examination of the nature and processes of BDC elections reveal, a preposterous claim. The BDC elections are not conducted through a direct franchise involving the people. The councils are the second tier of the panchayati raj system, and their chairpersons are chosen by the elected representatives of its lowest tier, that is, panches and sarpanches. The “98 per cent” did not refer to the electorate but panches and sarpanches who have the voting rights in a BDC election. However, as pointed out, these 26,629 panches and sarpanches, 98.3 per cent of whom voted, were elected in an election in 2018 that saw a tepid response from the people. Some 65 per cent of the halqas, or clusters of villages in the Valley, either had only a single candidate or had none.

When the Lok Sabha election results were announced on May 23, many political observers in Srinagar were of the opinion that a simmering Kashmir, where Indian security forces were in perennial collision with Muslim insurgents, was likely to work as the perfect vote-catcher for the BJP, particularly in Jammu. The generation of fear by a big-stage parading of a real or imagined threat from Pakistan-sponsored Islamist jehadis, the starting of a diatribe with Pakistan, the stepping up of military operations in Kashmir, and the selling of the idea that the elimination of Muslim militant youths is Hindutva’s victory over “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism” had come forth as the BJP’s best bet to script a sweep in Jammu. But the BDC elections are a reminder that people now are not only able to see through such a gambit but that Jammu may not be as happy with the revocation of State-subject rights as is being projected by interest groups. There have been widespread reports that people in Jammu are upset with the downgrading of the State into a Union Territory.

Soon after Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood was ended, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, the Congress’ Jammu and Kashmir president, told Frontline in an interview that the decision would not go down well with the people. “...Nowhere in the world is a State downgraded. In India, there are Union Territories that are struggling for statehood. The existing States are lobbying for special privileges. Even Jammu-based leaders of the BJP have voiced their concerns over the downgrading of the State and ending the domicile status. If the BJP’s Jammu wing is dismayed at the Centre’s decision, you can imagine how crestfallen and helpless people who do not belong to the BJP or endorse its politics will be,” Mir said (see Frontline, September 13). The outcome of the BDC elections has validated his observations.

Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir’s transition into a Union Territory, in which law and order and the police would be under Central control, is not without controversy. New Delhi appointed Girish Chandra Murmu and R.K. Mathur as the new Lieutenant Governors of the two Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, respectively. But Murmu’s background has been a point of debate. A 1985-batch Gujarat-cadre Indian Administrative Service officer, Murmu was Expenditure Secretary in the Union Finance Ministry until his elevation to his new post. Murmu is believed to have been a close aide of Modi ever since he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Murmu was the Principal Secretary in the Chief Minister’s office then.

Since mid October, 11 non-local people were killed in targeted attacks in Kashmir. The Valley was also in the news for attacks on migrant workers. On October 29, militants shot dead five labourers from West Bengal in Kulgam.

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