Srinagar: The regional political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, which recently formalised an alliance for the restoration of Article 370, will have to answer some tough questions in the coming weeks as the Government of India and the union territory administration prepare to hold the maiden District Development Council (DDC) elections in J&K.
The Narendra Modi government amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 last week to establish DDCs in all districts in the UT.
Described by officials as the final step in the implementation of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, under which Panchayati Raj institutions were given official status in 1992, the government order specified that every district in J&K will be divided into 14 territorial constituencies, which will participate in the polls expected to be held later this year.
Senior government officials in J&K described the development as a forward move towards empowering democratic processes at the grassroots. However, political observers and mainstream politicians believe that the regional players who have opposed Modi government’s 5 August 2019 move to scrap Article 370, withdrawing the special status granted to the erstwhile state, will find themselves in a dilemma.
While the DDC elections, just like panchayat polls, are not held along political lines, parties that are part of the newly formed Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) will have to take an official stand on how they see the DDC polls.
The options before PAGD
Experts say the options before the PAGD would be to officially boycott the polls and get further marginalised, or accept the elections without resistance and end up legitimising the 370 move.
“All the democratic processes have been dismantled over the year with the abrogation of Article 370. Now the central government perhaps does not know what is the way out. Hence you see these experiments in the form of local or hyper local elections such as panchayat or DDC polls,” said professor Noor Ahmad Baba, a Kashmir-based expert in politics and governance.
“The idea is to gauge the mood of the people. If this was not the case, why haven’t there been assembly polls which are long overdue?”
Baba added: “The regional parties now face a predicament. Boycott and risk getting marginalised as was the case when they boycotted the urban local body and panchayat polls in 2018. Or accept the polls and get painted as legitimising the central government last year’s decision of abrogating Article 370.”
Speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity, NC and PDP leaders said they were aware of the fix the regional parties are in at the moment.
“We are mindful of the dilemma and that is why serious deliberations within parties and in the alliance will be taking place soon,” said a source in the PDP.
At a press conference Friday, the first since her release from detention, Mehbooba Mufti did not specify her stand on the DDC elections and said the PAGD will meet and take a call.
While the PAGD is yet to officially speaking about it, interviews of its other leaders in media outlets have been mostly critical of the amendments accusing the Centre of further weakening the future cabinet of J&K.
Adnan Ashraf, spokesperson of Peoples Conference, which is part of the PAGD, said preliminary examination of the amendments introduced by the Centre “showed the move was done to further disempower the cabinet and MLAs”.
“This is a major concern for all of us. Our party has decided to have an internal discussion on the issue in the next few days,” Ashraf said.
Strategy under discussion
The regional parties are yet to decide on whether they will participate in the election process, but it is likely that a meeting of the PAGD will take place in the coming days.
“We have formed an alliance and all major decisions will be taken jointly. So yes, in the coming days, we will be discussing this issue at length and come out with a joint strategy,” said PDP leader Waheed Para.
The NC is also not showing its cards at the moment given that its president and former J&K CM Farooq Abdullah was questioned twice by the Enforcement Directorate in the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association scam case.
“We have been busy with this witch hunt launched against Dr Farooq Abdullah. The DDC poll issue will be up for discussion soon,” said an NC leader, who didn’t want to be identified.
However, senior leader Nasir Aslam Wani pointed out that the DDC polls were not being fought on party lines, hinting that the NC might not be interested in putting an all-out statement against the election.
“First of all, the DDC polls are not being fought on a party basis. Independent candidates will fight the poll. Secondly, a joint platform has been formed and all major decisions will be taken with consensus of all partners,” Wani said.
Meanwhile, M.Y. Tarigami, former J&K MLA and senior CPI(M) leader, said as a result of the poll boycott in 2018, “those people were elected who were not ideal to govern”.
“The final decision will be taken by the Peoples Alliance. But if my personal opinion is asked, I would say that the DDC polls are directed at electing people who would represent rural areas. I think the rural population should take the matters in their own hands and elect people who would work for them. We all know not much has been achieved on ground by this administration,” Tarigami said.
The senior politician expressed fears that leaving the field for rival parties would be akin to leaving the rural areas “on their own”.
BJP and Apni Party’s plans
While PAGD’s next move remains to be seen, the BJP is prepared even as its rivals say that elections are not along party lines.
“The BJP is always ready for the polls and we will encourage our cadre to make people aware of the DDC elections and the benefits of participating in the electoral exercise. We are a party that doesn’t lie unlike signatories of the Gupkar Declaration,” said Kashmir BJP leader Sofi Yousuf.
“Last time they said they would boycott the urban local body polls and panchayat elections but instead they backed proxy candidates,” he alleged, adding that the PAGD partners should “stop telling lies” and participate in the polls.
While the BJP seems clear about its plan, the newly formed Apni Party headed by former J&K minister Altaf Bukhari will also be holding meetings to decide a way forward.
However, two party sources confirmed that the party will be a part of the polls. “We will take part in the polls but the party has to meet and then only will we officially declare our plans,” said a senior Apni Party leader, who didn’t wish to be named.