J&K Political Leaders Turn Up the Heat on Demand for Assembly Elections

Leaders from various J&K parties met the chief election commissioner on Thursday, insisting that elections be organised at the earliest.

Srinagar: The arrival of spring has brought a new political energy to Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP-led Union government is likely to face increasing heat from the opposition parties in the coming weeks over the delay in conducting assembly elections.

Leading the charge, National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah, who also heads the Gupkar Alliance, raised the issue with chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar in the national capital on Thursday, March 16. The meeting was also attended by leaders and representatives of other prominent political parties in J&K.

“There is no justification for the Election Commission to further delay the polls in Jammu and Kashmir,” Abdullah told reporters after the meeting. “The delimitation exercise has been completed and the boundaries of the electoral constituencies have been redrawn. Now we want democratic processes to be restored and requested the commission to announce the polls at the earliest.”

There was no official word from the Election Commission about the meeting. A three-page memorandum was submitted to the CEC by J&K parties which was also signed by the Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, NCP leader Sharad Pawar, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, T.R. Baalu of the DMK, AAP leader Sanjay Singh and others.

Apart from Abdullah, the delegation comprised of NC leaders Hasnain Masoodi and Rattan Lal Gupta, Congress’s J&K president Vikas Rasool, Harsh Dev Singh of the Panthers Party, Muzaffar Shah of the Awami National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party general secretary Amrik Singh Reem, Master Hari Singh of the CPI(M), Gulshan Singh Charak of the Dogra Sadr Sabha, Munish Sahay of the Shiv Sena Bal Thakery, Transit Singh Tony of AAP, I.D. Khajuria of the Internationalist Democratic Party and Sunil Dimple of Mission Statehood.

Election after delimitation

The issue of delimitation has been used as a justification by the Union government to delay the assembly elections in J&K, which will complete five years under Central rule in June this year after the fall of the PDP-BJP coalition government in 2018.

Under the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, which bifurcated and downgraded the erstwhile state into two union territories, J&K assembly elections were to be held after the completion of the delimitation exercise. While the exercise was completed in autumn last year, the arrival of winter dampened the prospects of elections.

Putting the onus of elections on the Election Commission, the memorandum, which was presented to the CEC notes that the union territory is being run by “an unrepresentative and unaccountable bureaucracy” which is “in disregard of the letter and spirit of the Constitution”.

“The panchayat elections and elections to other PRIs cannot be substitute to legislative assembly elections and the government and for that matter the ECI cannot avoid and delay assembly elections on that ground. Had it been so, there would be no need to conduct assembly elections in (other) states,” the memorandum states.

Unpopular decisions

The political crisis in Jammu and Kashmir has been aggravated by a series of unpopular decisions by the administration, which have triggered widespread anger across the union territory. Earlier this month, the Jammu region, a stronghold of the ruling BJP, observed a symbolic shutdown against the imposition of a property tax in the union territory without public consultations. The tax has been opposed in both divisions of J&K.

The administration was also pushed on to the backfoot over a sweeping “anti-encroachment drive” which was launched in the union territory in January this year. Another policy decision which triggered public backlash, the drive to reclaim hundreds of thousands of kanals of state land and grazing pastures was halted after it turned out that the governor’s house among hundreds of government buildings were also built on illegally occupied land.

Speaking to The Wire, a Srinagar-based analyst said that the public pushback against the “unpopular” policy decisions of the J&K administration has grown in recent weeks and the political parties are capitalising on the simmering anger to build more pressure on the Union government.

Referring to the participation of National Conference activists in a recent anti-administration sit-in by job aspirants at Srinagar’s Press Enclave, the analyst, who didn’t want to be named said: “It is like striking while the iron is hot. If the elections are not held this year, which is where J&K seems to be heading, then these parties will be further isolated and also restrained on the political turf. It is a do or die situation for them.”

‘BJP afraid’

The BJP in J&K is also playing on uncertain turf. While the saffron party has clinched victory after victory in other states, it is struggling to perfect its electoral arithmetic in the country’s only Muslim-majority region where it hopes to come to power. Given the Union government’s firm grasp on J&K and its affairs, the opposition parties allege that the BJP would like to further delay the assembly elections so that it can continue its “proxy rule”.

“The BJP is gripped by fear. Is it because you are fearing that you will lose the elections? They (BJP) know they will be badly defeated if elections are held here, which is why elections are not being conducted,” National Conference’s Omar Abdullah told party workers in Budgam on Thursday.

Last month, Union home minister Amit Shah said that the Election Commission will take a call on J&K elections. The memorandum submitted to the CEC on Thursday also notes that the home minister and “other functionaries of Government of India have more than once stated that the government is ready to facilitate conduct of assembly elections and final call is to be taken by the Election Commission of India”.

“The Election Commission is under a constitutional obligation to hold assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir and delay in and denial of assembly elections would amount to denial of fundamental and democratic rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and a breach of constitutional obligations,” the memorandum states.

The memorandum ends with a call for the “restoration of all the constitutional rights guaranteed in the constitution of India and fulfilment of political aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir”.