BJP using all means to get chairmanships in the Jammu and Kashmir District Development Councils

Print edition : January 29, 2021

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti at a function to felicitate the newly elected DDC councillors, sarpanchs and panchs, at the party headquarters in Srinagar on December 29, 2020. Photo: PTI

Omar Abdullah of the N.C. at a press conference in Srinagar on December 26, 2020. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Failing to secure the mandate they wanted in the DDC elections, the BJP and its allies have embarked on a campaign to bag as many council chairmanships for themselves as possible through a combination of tactics, including coercion, horse-trading and preventive detention of members of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration.

THE Jammu and Kashmir administration is employing a combination of tactics, ranging from horse-trading to misuse of agencies, to reverse the mandate of the District Development Council (DDC) elections, allege the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) , which clinched 110 of the Union Territory’s 280 wards and emerged as the largest winning formation. The developments before and after the election results were announced on December 22 give credence to these allegations. Jammu and Kashmir has 20 districts, each with 14 wards. For a party or an alliance to capture a district council, it has to secure a majority in its 14 wards. The chairmen in each of the council will have to be elected within three weeks of the declaration of results.

On December 21, a day before the counting of votes, the administration cracked down on over a score of political leaders, detaining them without any visible provocation. Those who were taken into preventive detention included top leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) such as Sartaj Madni, Mansoor Hussain and Naeem Akhtar. Mehbooba Mufti, PDP president and former Chief Minister, described that onslaught on her party as “out and out gunda raj”.

Ever since December 22 when it became clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had managed to secure a majority in only six out of 20 districts in Jammu and Kashmir and that its alleged proxy, Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, had bagged a humbling 12 wards (“A game plan gone awry”, Frontline, January 15, 2021), a campaign seems to be unfolding to coerce independents into joining the Apni Party or the BJP. With 50 seats, the independent candidates emerged as key players, and their votes will be decisive in the election of council chairpersons in several districts. The PAGD has secured a clear majority of its own in only six of the Kashmir region’s 10 districts. It is ahead in Baramulla, Shopian and Bandipora, but whether it can have a chairperson in those three district councils will depend on the independents. Independents will also play the decisive role in Srinagar, where the BJP and the Apni Party won one seat and three seats respectively. The independents have seven seats, and many observers believe that the balance has already tilted in the BJP-Apni Party’s favour.

Also read: The National Conference-led Gupkar Alliance takes a big lead in the J&K DDC elections, dashing the BJP’s hopes of building an alternative to the regional parties

In the Jammu region, whereas the BJP is comfortably placed in Kathua, Samba, Udhampur, Jammu, Doda and Reasi districts and the PAGD in Ramban, Kishtwar and Rajouri districts, the vote of independents will determine the chairperson in the Poonch district council. On December 23, Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister and vice chairman of the National Conference (N.C.), cautioned the Narendra Modi government against any political machinations. “The Centre should listen to the people’s voice,” he said to party workers who had gathered at the party’s Nawa-i-Subah headquarters in Srinagar after the PAGD’s victory.

On December 25, Omar Abdullah was more forthcoming. Mincing no words, he accused the Union Territory’s police and the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha-led administration of “facilitating horse-trading and defections”. By that time Yasmeena Jan, one of the N.C.’s DDC members, had defected to the Apni Party. The alleged coercion on the part of the administration is difficult to deny when one looks at the chain of events in Shopian. Several N.C. leaders there were put in preventive detention before Yasmeena Jan, who won from the Imam Sahib-I ward in Shopian, jumped ship. Omar Abdullah alleged that the detention of his party leaders was well thought out in order to create a communication gap between the N.C. leadership and its newly elected DDC members.

‘Preventive arrest’

“This explains why our leaders in Shopian district are being put under ‘preventive arrest’ by the police. The woman [Yasmeena Jan] shown here joining the BJP’s B-team contested & won elections on an NC mandate,” Omar Abdullah said on Twitter. He added: “Shame on this administration for playing partisan politics to curry favour with the ruling party & their stooges. These parties couldn’t win seats so now they are using money/muscle/threats & government coercion to make up the numbers. So much for ‘democracy has won’!” According to the former Chief Minister, the police also detained a former Legislative Council member of the party in order to prevent him from reaching out to independents. There are allegations that the local authorities have been facilitating the movement of independent winners to Srinagar where high-level meetings and negotiations are going on.

Also read: PDP youth leader Waheed Para arrested again after NIA court sets him free, Mehbooba targets Centre

Seeing the rampant horse-trading, the PAGD called an emergency meeting of its constituents and called on the administration to “desist from this [horse-trading]…”. PAGD spokesperson Sajad Lone said: “History is replete with examples of those who tried to overturn the verdict of the people coming to grief. We need to respect this verdict and show respect to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Under no circumstances should democracy be tinkered with, interfered with; that is totally unacceptable.”

However, the crackdown is becoming more evident. The Enforcement Directorate recently raided the residence of Anjum Fazili, a former PDP MLA and a close aide of Mehbooba Mufti, in connection with a money laundering case. Cash amounting to Rs.21,38,200 was seized from Anjum Fazili’s Srinagar residence and Rs.6,62,500 from her New Delhi residence. There are allegations that financial fraud took place in J&K Bank when Mehbooba Mufti was in power. There is also a perception that PDP loyalists and their acquaintances were favoured when it came to recruitment for the bank.

Mehbooba Mufti described the raids as “witch-hunt” and alleged that the Centre was trying to “terrorise her family” in the name of investigations. “They are investigating my mother’s bank accounts and have sought property details of my sister, who is a doctor by profession,” said the PDP president. Later, in an interview with PTI, Mehbooba Mufti made the shocking revelation that her father’s graveyard was being “audited”. “It’s mortifying and disgusting that they are now running an audit on the mausoleum of my late father. How much lower will they stoop?” she asked.

In view of these developments, Ali Mohammad Sagar, senior N.C. leader and general secretary, wrote to State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma saying: “I thank you for the successful conduct of the DDC elections 2020. However, while the elections and the counting commenced uneventfully, the entire exercise is set to go futile if you do not intervene immediately and forcefully.” Sagar, who was kept under detention for a long time after the erstwhile State’s special status was revoked on August 5, 2019, further underlined how independents were being “coerced into joining a certain political party”. “There are touts who are encouraging horse-trading. A display of money and bidding of price... are taking place. At some places, threats and coercion are also being employed,” he wrote.

Also read: ‘Modi government’s vendetta politics in Kashmir must end,’ says National Conference leader Salman Sagar

By the first week of January, at least three independent DDC members had joined the Apni Party. This has changed the equation in Shopian, at least. The Apni Party is also eyeing the Bandipore district council where the PAGD is short of a majority. In an interview to an English news portal, Apni Party chief Altaf Bukhari said his party would secure DDC chairmanships in at least six districts. “As of now, 21 independent candidates are with us. We are sure of having a DDC chairperson in at least two districts in Jammu where there are many winners interested in joining us. In Kashmir, we will be able to have DDC chairpersons in at least four or five districts. We won’t be satisfied with anything less,” he said.

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