In October 2020, the Union government amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989. It introduced a provision to hold direct elections to the district development councils. These councils replaced the district development boards which functioned mostly as official bodies of the government.
Other than the MP and MLAs representing the district, there was no representation for the board. The DDCs, on the other hand, were constituted on the basis of a direct election with each district having 14 elected members.
Issues around the election
The election, which was held in eight phases, attracted significant national attention. As it was the first ever political exercise since the special constitutional status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped and the state was reorganised, the whole electoral process evoked much interest among political watchers. Though the elections were held for the limited purpose of forming the district-level councils, there were larger issues that lingered in the background.
Some of the important ones surrounded the issue of legitimacy versus contestation of the August 2019 changes, the political impasse, the opening up of democratic space in Kashmir, the role and relevance of various political parties in the context of the changed political environment; the ‘old’ versus ‘new’ politics in J&K. The election, in the end, did serve the purpose of ending the political impasse in Kashmir and opening up some democratic space. It also brought about clarity regarding the role and relevance of the traditional mainstream parties in the UT, particularly in Kashmir.
The process evoked early interest because the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) had decided to contest the election as one unit. The PAGD – comprising the NC, PDP, People’s Conference, CPM, Awami National Conference and Jammu Kashmir People’s Movement – was formed just prior to the announcement of the elections, with a demand for a return to the pre-August 5 status in J&K.
Leaders of the respective alliances were not only resentful of the changes but also sceptical of its effect on mainstream politics. Both Farooq and Omar Abdullah, soon after their release from detention, had expressed the view that mainstream politics had suffered as a result of these changes and that it would not be easy for political leaders to engage again with people. Under such circumstances, the DDC elections brought them back to the centre stage of sorts and provided them with a way to emerge from the impasse. Boycotting the elections would only have been counter-productive as it would have allowed new players such as the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP) and even the BJP to capture political space in Kashmir, sidelining the older parties.
BJP vs PAGD
This decision of the PAGD to participate in the election and field their candidates jointly, resulted in a high-stakes, high-profile election for both the BJP and the PAGD. Given that these were the first elections that took place after the August 2019 changes, it was important for the BJP to win in order to convince the electorate, and indeed the public at large, that the sweeping changes it had enacted in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir had garnered public support, even approval. Anything less than a ‘reasonable victory’, at least in its core constituency in the Jammu region, would be considered a setback for the BJP. For the PAGD, a victory would entail a vindication of their opposition to the changes and also a boost for the party’s morale and their very existence.
The BJP, true to form, took the electoral exercise very seriously and went about the campaign in a very organised manner. Not only was there a regular presence of national-level leaders throughout the process, but a dedicated team of senior leaders, including Central ministers, set up camp in the Union Territory. In Delhi, senior leaders of the BJP lost no opportunity to refer to their rivals as the ‘Gupkar gang’, even virtually declaring them to be anti-national. Campaign rhetoric reached such shrill levels that the district-level election garnered national attention.
There was a significant difference in the voter turnout in the two regions. Against a range of 64.21% to 72.71% turnout during different phases in the Jammu region, Kashmir recorded 29.91% to 40.65% turnout. However, in comparison to the panchayat elections held in 2018 and the 2019 parliamentary elections, the turnout was certainly much better. To give an example or two – Srinagar district which registered a turnout of 35.3% in the DDC elections, had registered only 7.90% and 14.50% turnout in the parliamentary and panchayat elections respectively. Similarly, Budgam which recorded 41.5% voter turnout this time, had registered only around 21% in both panchayat and parliamentary elections.
The level of participation, however, was not even across the region. The four south Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag, which have been severely impacted by separatism and militancy since 2015, had the lowest turnout, ranging between 7.65% (Pulwama) to around 25% (Anantnag and Kulgam).
In contrast, north Kashmir, which has large border areas and has been mostly free of militancy and violence, registered a higher turnout. With the exception of Sopore district which recorded only 23.8% votes, the average voter turnout in the region was more than 45% (45.2% in Baramulla, 49.8% in Kupwara, 54.9% in Handwara, 55.6% in Bandipora). The central part of Kashmir, meanwhile, registered a moderate level turnout, ranging from 35.3% in Srinagar to 44.3% in Ganderbal.
One can see that the elections hav opened some democratic space in Kashmir for which the BJP has been seeking credit. However, much of this was due to the alliance parties. They chose participation over boycott, reviving and re-invigorating the political space to some extent. It is certain that if these parties had withdrawn from the fray, the situation would have been quite different and pushed mainstream politics further to the margins, with separatism and militancy stepping into the void.
Mapping the results
The alliance partners were able to register victories in 110 of the total 278 district constituencies for which the results have been declared – the result for two constituencies has been withheld. Of these, 84 constituencies lie in Kashmir division and 26 in Jammu division. BJP has won 75 seats, 72 in Jammu region and 3 in Kashmir. The Congress got 26, 17 in Jammu division and 9 in Kashmir. Jammu Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP) got 12 seats. As many as 50 independents, many of whom were disgruntled former party candidates, also registered victories.
Both the BJP and the PAGD alliance claimed to have won a majority. BJP further claimed that they had the highest number of votes. While the BJP’s claim lies in the technicalities, the PAGD’s claim lies in the political reality. That BJP emerged as the largest party in the UT with 75 seats is a technical fact formally recorded with the election authority of J&K. However, the PAGD parties contested the election as a unit and not as individual parties. Hence, their claim that they received 110 seats over the BJP’s 75 is also correct. The other claim by the BJP that it has polled the largest share of votes is also a technical fact. Its vote share is linked with the much higher voter turnout in the Jammu region, almost twice of that in the Kashmir region.
The reasons behind the BJP’s impressive performance lies in its near-complete control over its core constituency, comprising the predominantly Hindu-dominated districts – Jammu, Samba, Kathua and Udhampur. These four districts are also the most densely populated in the region, and the BJP had a clean sweep. It won 49 out of the 56 seats here, losing only 7 seats to other parties and independents.
In this way, it has repeated its performance of the 2014 assembly elections when it had captured 18 of the 21 assembly constituencies in these districts. The Congress, which was the traditional party of the region and these districts (till 2008), has been totally decimated and Panthers party, that had a hold in some of these districts, ended up securing only 2 seats out of 56.
The BJP also has a presence in all other districts of the Jammu region with the exception of Poonch where it failed to get any seat. In Doda, it got a majority (8) and in Reasi, it is the largest party with 6 seats. In Rajouri and Kishtwar and Ramban, it has 3 seats each. Seen from that perspective, the BJP is the dominant party of the Jammu region, having captured as many as 72 constituencies. No other party has performed as well. The next best is the National Conference with 25 seats. In 2014, the BJP had swept the Jammu region with 25 out of 37 seats, 18 in its core constituency and 7 in other parts of the region. It has had an added advantage in the DDC election, in that it has been able to win 3 seats in the Kashmir region.
Taken as a whole, however, the PAGD’s performance is better. Of the 138 seats in Kashmir division, the alliance has been able to register a victory in 84 while 9 seats each went to the Congress and JKAP, 3 were won by the BJP and 31 by independents. What further adds to the performance of the PAGD is that it has a majority in more districts as compared to the BJP. While the BJP has a majority in 5 districts and may be able to get a majority in the sixth (Reasi), the PAGD has a clear majority in seven districts and a substantial presence in two more (six seats each). The PAGD’s advantage is that it has been able to make its mark in the Jammu region as well with as many as 26 seats and a substantial presence in Ramban and Kishtwar districts (six seats each).
The NC prevails
In terms of the individual political parties which formed the alliance, the NC has emerged as the strongest and most resilient. In fact, its performance has been extraordinary, given the fact that as part of the alliance, it did not contest the election to its full potential and had to share electoral space with other parties. Even so, its tally of 67 seats is quite impressive. Not only did it get a large number of seats in Kashmir but also 25 in the Jammu region. In fact, it could also win two seats even in the predominantly Hindu areas (one each in Jammu and Samba districts). This is a party which has a presence in the largest number of districts. With the exception of Udhampur and Katua, it has a presence in all the other 18 DDCs. In that sense, its performance is much better than during the 2014 assembly elections.
By region, by religion
One thing that has been clearly revealed in these elections is that regional political divergence is a reality in Jammu and Kashmir. With the twin forces of regional polarisation and religious polarisation creating distinct blocks of voter preferences, the obvious trend is that Hindu areas prefer the BJP while Muslim areas vote against them.
Areas of mixed population, mostly in the Jammu region, are the saving grace, because here, one finds a mixed political response and an ‘open’ political space for all kinds of parties. At least five districts of this region with a mixed population show these trends. Thus while the predominantly Hindu districts leave virtually no scope for any party other than the BJP, the reverse is true in the Muslim majority district of Poonch. In Doda, Kishtwar, Ramban, Reasi, and Rajouri, one can see the presence of multiple parties. In Doda district where BJP has got the majority seats, there is a Congress presence (4) and NC (1). In Kishtwar besides NC (6) and Congress (3), there is BJP (3). Rajouri has a medley of NC (5), Congress (3), BJP (3) PDP (1) and JKAP (1); so also in Reasi, BJP (6), NC (3), JKAP (2) and Congress (1). Ramban has NC (6), BJP (3) Congress (2).
In the polarised politics of J&K, both region-wise and religion-wise, the only bridges that exist are in these areas of mixed population.
Limits of DDC politics and democratic space
What next? The DDC elections have opened up the democratic space in Jammu and Kashmir but it offers very limited possibilities. Since the assembly elections are not likely to be held any time soon (the delimitation has to precede the election and one doesn’t know when it will be done), DDC is all that exists in the name of representative politics (or the panchayats or municipalities). Other than a somewhat restricted developmental role for the DDC, there does not appear to be much space for democratic politics through these councils.
In fact, politics via the DDCs will be fragmented and reduced to the district level. As long as the assembly is not constituted, the formal democratic political space will remain limited. It is a different matter that even after the assembly elections take place at some future date, the assembly and the elected government would not have the same autonomy it had before August 2019. So it will be only after the statehood is restored, that meaningful democratic politics can take place.
So what is the significance of this election and what does it mean for democratic politics? These elections have given a kind of ‘moral right’ to the political parties to act on behalf of the people. This is as much true for the BJP as for the PAGD. The BJP has already started using the mandate to claim that (a) it has got approval for the changes that it brought in August 2019 (b) that the people have voted for development and rejected separatism and (c) that it is the victory of democracy.
For the PAGD parties, these elections have empowered them to make a point about the reality of their existence and their relevance. The mandate they have received and their relevance to Kashmir’s or even the Union territory’s politics cannot be challenged. There may not be much formal democratic space for them to operate in, but they can always be vocal about political issues. In any case, the election has been a good reality check for them and for others; it is no more a hypothetical question whether these parties matter or not in Kashmir. It has now been proven that they do.
Rekha Chowdhary was formerly a professor of Political Science at the University of Jammu.
Note: This article has been edited since publication to correct an error on the BJP’s tally in Jammu, Samba, Kathua and Udhampur.