Why the Lowest-Ever Turnout in Kashmir Municipal Polls Should Worry Delhi

An analysis of municipal polls held in different states during the past one year shows how the elections in the Valley could be a worrying sign for the government.

Srinagar: A cartoon in a local Urdu daily, Srinagar Times, summed up the just concluded municipal elections in Kashmir. It showed a polling officer preparing to take a nap inside a booth while asking a security man on guard to wake him up if any voter turns up.

The cartoon by Bashir Ahmad Bashir, popularly known as BAB, in local Urdu daily Srinagar Times.

This piece of art by illustrious cartoonist Bashir Ahmad Baba was widely shared on social media and depicted the near-total boycott of the polls that were held after a gap of 13 years, to reconstitute municipal bodies.

The four-phased elections saw just single-digit voter turnout, the lowest during the past three decades, putting a question mark on the credibility of the exercise and leading to a debate over the government of India’s handling of Kashmir.

Numbers speak

From the very beginning, the entire election process was a secretive affair. While names of contesting candidates were never made public, there was no campaigning at all. Even the location of the polling booths remained a mystery till the last minute.

Also read: Kashmir’s Civic Polls Today Are Shrouded in Secrecy

If the first phase of elections witnessed a low 8.2% voting, the turnout nose-dived to just 3.4% during the next phase. The third phase again saw only 3.42% of the electorate casting their vote while the participation remained just 4.2% during the last phase.

By the end of the election, overall polling percentage recorded for all four phases was a little over 4%. That the election would see less participation was to some extent expected, given threats by militants to contesting candidates and decision by two largest regional parties, National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, to stay away from polls over challenge to J&K’s state subject law.

But, what would be worrying for the state and government of India is that the turnout fell even below the lowest ever recorded percentage for Parliament polls in 1989 when armed struggle had just broke out in the Valley. That time Anantnag and Baramulla Lok Sabha constituencies had recorded a little over 5% voting each while no elections were held for the Srinagar seat which went to National Conference uncontested.

In terms of numbers, nearly 70% of municipal wards did not witness any polling this election as there were either no candidates contesting or some of these wards had a single candidate in the fray, who got elected uncontested.

According to data compiled by state election department, out of 598 wards spanning across 40 municipal bodies in ten districts of the Valley, polling was held only in 186 wards. The remaining 412 wards – constituting 68.89% of the total segments – did not require any voting, reported PTI. Besides, over 30% of wards in these 40 urban local bodies will remain unrepresented while no nomination papers were received from only 181 wards (30.26%).

This is in fact the second consecutive election in the Valley, under the BJP-led government at the Centre, which recorded single-digit participation of people. In April 2017 when previous PDP-BJP coalition was ruling the state, by-polls to Budgam Lok Sabha seat, which was marred by violence, had seen just 7% voters exercising their right.

‘Outright rejection’

Both the state government and government of India have faced sharp criticism from the opposition for “people’s rejection” of the polls and have blamed New Delhi’s “aggressive” Kashmir policy for “furthering alienation” in the Valley.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah directly attacked the Narendra Modi-government’s “disastrous handling” of Kashmir for the low turnout. “From the highest turnout since 1987 in 2014 to the lowest turnouts ever recorded in 2018, why is the Modi government able to get away with its disastrous handling of Kashmir almost unquestioned,” Omar tweeted a few days ago.

One of his senior colleagues and National Conference general secretary Ali Muhammad Sagar said the lowest voter turnout has raised crucial questions. “Have people of Kashmir lost faith in democratic institutions? Are we staring at a time ahead when there will be no taker for democratic processes in Kashmir?” he asked. “From 80% participation in 2011 Panchayat elections to over 70% turnout in 2014 Assembly elections, look where  we stand today. This is the danger which the Centre is refusing to see through.”

According to him “those” who were “thumping their chest” for conducting the polls needed to introspect whether this municipal elections has any credibility when 95% of people in the Valley boycotted it. “This [boycott] is the outcome of the anti-Kashmir stance adopted by the Centre for the past four years to crush Kashmiris,” said Sagar.

Political analyst Happymon Jacob argued that government of India committed a “blunder” by rushing into the elections, and without taking regional parties, NC and PDP, on board.

“There is no doubt that people of the Valley have out rightly rejected these elections and there are reasons to it – growing human rights issues, deepening political uncertainty, state’s aggression…people seem to have lost faith in the system,” he said.

An analysis of municipal polls held in different states during the past one year shows how the elections in the Valley could be a worrying sign for the government. States like West Bengal, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab where civic body polls were held from December last year to September this year saw overall turnout ranging from lowest 50% in Punjab to the highest 72% in West Bengal.

Local bodies’s elections, Jacob argued, usually witness larger participation since peoples see this exercise as means to seek address to their day-to-day issues and giving push to development at local level. “But that hope has also been dashed in the Valley,” said Jacob, who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

At the state level, J&K witnessed 35% of polling and the only take-away for the election commission and government of India was that the entire exercise remained violence-free, barring a few incidents of stone pelting in some areas of summer capital of Srinagar.

Danger ahead?

Many analysts believe that holding elections in absence of regional parties was a “calculated move” by BJP to make inroads in the Valley which has so far remained out of bounds for the right-wing party.

“The party saw an opportunity in poll boycott by regional parties, hoped to cash it but in the process ended up discrediting the entire electoral exercise. This is typical of BJP to bulldoze institutions for personal gains,” said another political analyst Javaid Ahmad.

But, will this low turnout have an impact on Panchayat elections which are scheduled from next month and Parliament and assembly elections later on?

“There are serious apprehensions that the poll outcome will not only neutralise legitimacy of several past elections and credibility of democratic institutions but will make prospects of upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly polls bleaker in the Valley,” wrote senior journalist Ahmed Ali Fayyaz.

Terming these municipal polls as “joke with democracy”, Fayyaz said having observed and reported all 12 Lok Sabha, Assembly, municipal and Panchayat polls post 1990, he doesn’t remember “this sort of a farcical exercise [held] in the name of democracy since 1951”.

Jacob seconded the opinion while predicting that the trend of low voter turnout could stay for upcoming elections in the Valley. “This is now a serious threat staring at the face of government of India,” he said.

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.