Srinagar: The Narendra Modi government has given a go-ahead to the Jammu and Kashmir civil administration to hold panchayat elections in over 60 per cent seats in the Valley that have remained vacant since polls were last held in the erstwhile state in 2018, ThePrint has learnt.
On Tuesday, J&K Chief Electoral Officer Shailendra Kumar held a meeting via video conference to discuss the window for conducting the elections, government sources told ThePrint.
The meeting was attended by divisional commissioners of Kashmir and Jammu, the secretary to J&K government, inspector generals of Kashmir and Jammu, and other senior officials of the civil administration.
Kumar confirmed the development to ThePrint. However, he said plans to hold the polls were in preliminary stages at of now. “We can’t say that the process to hold the polls has been initiated. It will only be initiated when the CEO issues a notification. But yes, the Centre has given an indication to hold the polls, though the plan to do so is in preliminary stages.”
He added, “We first need to complete the electoral roll by this year end and then only we can think about holding the polls taking into factors like weather into account.”
The development comes even as senior leaders from Kashmir’s main regional parties — including three former chief ministers — continue to remain in detention. The leaders were taken in in August when the Modi government scrapped Article 370 and bifurcated the state into two union territories.
Elections are also to be held in vacant seats of Jammu and Ladakh. However, the number of vacant seats in the two regions is much lower than that in the Kashmir division.
Out of Kashmir’s 20,093 panch and sarpanch seats, a massive 12,565 seats, or over 62 per cent, have remained vacant since the conduct of urban local body and panchayat elections in October-November last year. Only 6,162 panchs and 1,366 sarpanchs were elected in the polls.
In comparison, Jammu has only 166 vacant seats after it saw the election of 15,800 panchs and 2,289 sarpanchs. In Ladakh, 1,414 panchs and 192 sarpanchs were elected, with 45 seats remaining vacant.
Kashmir saw poor poll figures as J&K’s two major regional powers, National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), boycotted the elections. Diktats issued against the elections by militant groups also bore an effect on the polls.
‘Nothing short of blunder’
The political activities of mainstream regional parties including NC, PDP, Sajjad Lone-led Peoples Conference and IAS officer-turned-politician Shah Faesel’s Peoples Movement remain suspended in the Valley.
This week, NC and PDP were allowed to hold important meetings after a gap of over five months during which their offices were sealed by security forces citing law and order situation.
However, leaders from both parties maintained that the only priority for them was the release of their detained leaders. NC leaders Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti — all three are former J&K chief ministers — have been in detention since 4 August.
“The meetings had no meaning other than raising the demand of the release of our leaders once again. There is no question of being part of any election process at a time when almost all of our leadership is illegally detained,” said Anantnag MP and senior NC leader Justice (retd) Hasnain Masoodi.
NC spokesperson Sarah Hayat said, “Conducting (panchayat) elections at this time will be nothing short of a blunder.”
A senior PDP leader, who did not wish be named, said the parties had no aim or goal until their leaders were released. “I believe meetings by NC and PDP were both in a way held to boost the morale of the party members…”
With regional parties still in disarray, the administration anticipates a repeat of this October’s block elections in which only the BJP and independent panchs and sarpanchs elected their block development council chairpersons. Other regional and national parties decided to stay away from the polls. A repeat of this will put the BJP in the driver’s seat in the panchayat polls too.