There is a shadow of doubt looming large over the upcoming elections for municipal bodies and panchayats in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Poll boycott calls are nothing new in the valley. For around two decades we have been seeing the separatist parties asking the people to stay away from the polls. Their main argument has been the polls bear no meaning unless there was a final resolution to larger Kashmir problem. Mainstream parties or pro-India parties as they are commonly termed in the valley have been the ones who have been taking the baton of elections under the constitution of India forward.
However this time things are different. The mainstream political parties have said no to elections. First, it was the National Conference, which announced that the party won't participate and then the other largest party PDP also followed suit. Other smaller parties and leaders have shown lack of interest in the elections.
Mainstream political parties have said no to elections over the Article 35A debate. (Photo: PTI)
They have based their boycott on the issue of Article 35A and the special status of the state. Article 35A of the Indian Constitution is an article that empowers the Jammu and Kashmir State's legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state and provide special rights to them. Article 35A was brought through a Presidential order in 1954.
This issue has taken the centre stage in Kashmir ever since a petition was filed by an NGO with links to right-wing parties of the country. This petition seeks removal of this Article by challenging the procedure through which it was inserted into the constitution of India. It is not the first time that such petitions challenging the special status of the state have been filed and dismissed by the courts.
But what is different in this case is that the central government seems to be shifting its stance on the issue. In one of the earlier hearings of this petition, the centre had told the court that the issue can be debated – a stand which it had never taken before. In the recent hearing, the government has said in the Supreme Court to defer the matter as the state was preparing for the local bodies polls.
People in the Valley blame the centre for its stand on the Article 35A debate. (Photo: PTI)
The political parties in the state feel that it was wrong on behalf of the government to use polls as a reason. They believe that the government should have rather come out clearly on the issue to dispel the doubts over its intentions that have cropped up in the minds of the people. NC and PDP have said that in such a situation there is no meaning of participating in these polls.
The separatists, who have been boycotting the polls for many years have a sense of vindication. For several years militant groups have also been calling for election boycotts.
But the elections used to happen and many of them would see huge participation of the people. The credit of these electoral successes would directly be given to the mainstream political parties who would campaign and bring people to the polling booth on various promises of development and resolution. The government of India would eventually present the participation as an indicator that things were heading for normalcy and there was a support to the policies of the state by the people in this conflict zone.
Many experts believe that the way things are going a poor voter turnout could be seen as a referendum against the Indian state. (Photo: PTI)
However over past few years, largely due to the handling of Kashmir by the central government, the people of the valley have been left feeling dejected and they have shown this in their lack of interest in the electoral process. In 2017 the parliament by-polls for Srinagar saw humiliating voter turn out of just 7 per cent. The polls for the Anantnag seat had to be cancelled and haven’t taken place until now. This happened when the mainstream parties were very much in the fray one can only assume what would be the fate of the municipal and panchayat polls when these parties have openly excused themselves out.
Many experts believe that the way things are going there is a serious risk that the outcome could be seen as a referendum against the Indian state. That is the reason there is a view that rather than being adamant on holding the polls in the current atmosphere it would have been better for the government to start the process of talks to send out a message to the people that it was serious on finding a permanent solution to this decades-long conflict.