Sharp Decline in Voter Turnout Marks Steady Fall of Mainstream Politics in Kashmir

While 80.9% voters boycotted the elections across Kashmir, the turnout was just 8.76% in the militant hotbed of Anantnag.

Srinagar: Thirty years ago, in the winter of 1989, armed rebellion had just broken out in Kashmir after the Centre decided to hold Parliamentary elections. The voting exercise ended with a dismal count in the Valley, which had been swept by the ‘Aazadi’ wave at the time.

Back then, a mere 5.7% voter turnout was recorded in Anantnag. It was only 0.1% higher in Baramulla, while the only candidate in the fray for Srinagar – from the National Conference – was elected unopposed.

From 68% electoral participation in 1984, the overall voting percentage fell to 5.75% in 1989. The course of electoral politics had changed drastically in just five years.

Fast-forward to May 6, 2019. While the final turnout of 8.76% in volatile Anantnag brought back memories of 1989, the overall participation across the Valley was no more inspiring, with the lowest turnout in two decades.

At least 80.9% voters boycotted the polls in all three segments of Kashmir this time. The last time a boycott of this magnitude occurred was in 1999, when 83.39% eligible voters didn’t vote.

Observers argue that the peoples’ indifference towards the electoral process is a “befitting reply” to New Delhi’s “aggressive approach and its continued policy of oppression in Kashmir.”

Academic and political commentator Sidiq Wahid even went on to say that the low turnout was “logical” as Kashmiris have “given up” on New Delhi.

In Gund Fatehpora polling booth, only 3 villagers cast their vote till 2:30 pm. The village has 793 registered voters. Credit: Aamir Ali Bhat

“The boycott is proof that Kashmiris have totally lost the faith in the mainstream and New Delhi. Now, electoral politics stands equally discredited in Kashmir,” he argued.

For regional parties, the low electoral participation has further dented their credibility at a time when they have been witnessing the space around them shrinking after the 2016 summer uprising.

“This [low turnout] is the outcome of New Delhi’s mishandling of Kashmir, particularly in the last five years, and its reluctance to accept Kashmir as a political problem,” Wahid opined.

The 2019 election was one of the most watched in Kashmir in recent times. Held against the backdrop of the Balakot strikes, and amid allegations that Prime Minister Modi used Kashmir to stoke nationalist sentiments and woo voters, it was the first major polling activity in the region since April 2017.

That year, by-polls in the militant hotbed – Anantnag – were rescheduled twice before the Election Commission of India (ECI) cancelled it all altogether, leaving the seat vacant for more than three years.

All eyes were again on southern Kashmir – ground zero of the war between security forces and rebels. Spread over four districts, the region has been in a constant state of mourning since the killing of popular rebel Burhan Wani in July 2016.

Also read: In Photos: Deserted Poll Booths in Anantnag as South Kashmir Goes to Vote

The young commander changed the course of militancy in Kashmir, drawing scores of Kashmiris into the fold and making it a local phenomenon. Once again, after more than a decade, the foreign tag was gone.

That was also the time when the Centre gave up on the path of dialogue on Kashmir and, instead, cleared ‘Operational All Out’ – one of the biggest anti-militancy operations in the country.

Kashmir was on the cusp again. Village after village, the entire south would swell with ‘Aazadi’ slogans each time a militant’s dead body returned home – to a hero’s welcome.

In the 40 months since, around 640 militants have been killed by the forces. Over 300 civilians have also died, many of them during encounters while trying to help trapped rebels escape.

Each death, however, added to the anger on the ground, uniting people in times of grief, as New Delhi continued to rely on an iron fist to handle seven decade of political turmoil in Kashmir.

Given the “security concerns,” the ECI fragmented polls in Anantnag into three phases. “But the resounding boycott in the south and Srinagar, and low turnout elsewhere is not only a huge setback to gains the Centre had claimed to have made in terms of making mainstream politics and elections participative, it has even left political parties like the National Conference, PDP and others discredited,” said political commentator Ashiq Hussain.

While the turnout in Srinagar was recorded at 14% it was 34% in Baramulla. The percentage was 26% and 39% in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Today, as May 23 draws closer, political parties are desperately searching for a lead – from 2%  in some districts to 10% in others – and waiting for a win from the mere 8% voter turnout in constituencies like Anantnag.

A Police personnel posing for a photograph outside a deserted polling station. Credit: Aamir Ali Bhat

“This [low turnout] is not surprising at all,” said PDP’s spokesperson Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra.

He didn’t his mince words whilst acknowledging that the political uncertainty gripping Kashmir during the three-and-a-half year rule of PDP-BJP government “isolated the entire population.”

In March 2015, the PDP shook hands with the BJP to form the government, against its poll promises. Eleven months later, when Mufti Muhammad Sayeed – who was chief minister of the coalition – passed away, his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, had the option to break the coalition.

But she chose “not to prove her father wrong” and went on to become first female chief minister of restive J&K. The BJP finally ditched her in July 2019, but not before the coalition had proved disastrous for Kashmir.

“From the beginning, the BJP’s approach was very aggressive and it gave a sense of defeat to the people in Kashmir,” Para said.

Hussain said the boycott pointed to the “growing irrelevance” of mainstream politics in Kashmir, saying it was time for New Delhi to revisit its muscular approach towards Kashmir.

Also read: Amid Simmering Anger Over Militant Killings, Poll Fervour Missing in South Kashmir

His statement finds resonance on the ground. “Our vote makes India’s claim on Kashmir stronger and gives power to local politicians. It is a mistake that we should realise sooner rather than later,” Ghulam Hassan Wani, a shopkeeper in the highway town of Awantipora in Pulwama district, told The Wire.

A man in his 60s, Wani said that in the 2014 election, the area witnessed “good polling” but that this time the people sided with the boycott, referring to the May 6 elections.

Why did they boycott the elections?

“They killed our son, Rizwan,” he responded, referring to a 30-year old school principal from the town.

The young man, who worked in a local school, was picked up by police during a raid at his house on the night of March 17. Two days later, the family was informed about his death in custody.

The locality where Rizwan lived saw just two of 4,551 registered voters exercising their franchise. “We know there will be no justice in this case too. But we can tell them that we are no longer with them by not becoming part of any of their programs,” said Wani, at his shop.

While not a single vote was cast in 211 of the 452 polling stations set across Pulwama,, 387 polling booths registered zero voting across the Anantnag constituency. The number of zero-voting booths was 494 in all three segments of Kashmir.

Then, there were districts like Pulwama and Shopian which recorded single digit voting – 2.14% and 2.88% respectively – the lowest ever in any district in Kashmir.

Moreover, in this election, two things stood apart.

Kashmir polling, 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, Jammu and Kashmir, Srinagar voting, Anantnag polls

Security forces posing for a photograph at Ashajipora polling station. Out of 3,485 votes, only 15 were polled till 2 pm. Credit: Aamir Ali Bhat

First, barring a few incidences of violence, people largely ignored the electoral exercise altogether – particularly in Anantnag and large parts of Srinagar constituency – occupying themselves with their daily activities in the apple orchards and agriculture fields. Second, the call for boycott found resonance deep in rural pockets, and areas which have traditionally sided with mainstream political parties.

“This is more dangerous,” former IAS topper Shah Faesal – who has floated his own political party – told the media in Jammu recently, adding that “anti-people polices” by successive regimes have “forced people to shun the path of democracy.”

Take the case of two Assembly constituencies in Kulgam district, Noorabad and Devsar, which have remained strongholds of mainstream parties in the past. They registered 75.3% and 41% polling respectively in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

This election, the percentage in these two constituencies fell to 20% and 15% respectively. It left even mainstream politicians baffled.

There were ten other Assembly segments in south Kashmir – Tral, Hom Shalibugh, Kulgam, Wachi, Rajpora, Bijbehara, Shopian, Anantnag, Pampore and Pulwama – where a staggering 96% to 99% of people boycotted the elections this year.

The abysmal turnout (8.7%0) in the south has only been the third time in the past three decades that a Lok Sabha seat has recorded polling in single digits – after the 1989 elections and the 2017 by-polls in Srinagar, when just 7% voters cast their ballot.

Also read: Lacklustre Campaign in J&K Masks Future Battle Between Omar, Sajad Lone

Contrastingly, the turnout was 28% in 2014; 27.10% in 2009; 15.04% in 2004; 14.32% in 1999 and 28.15% in 1998 – showing that voters’ participation had steadily increased in the last four elections before this one.

It also brings into focus the speech of Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered to a rally last month, when he said his government had managed to restrict militancy to just two-and-a half districts in Kashmir, referring to Pulwama, Shopian and the ‘half’ district of Kulgam.

Whether it was a true depiction of Kashmir’s situation or not, this election has shown that almost an entire population has taken a stance against mainstream politics in the region – and that is where the problem lies for the Centre.

In fact, it is for the second time in a row that Kashmir has registered a resounding boycott, after Panchayat and Municipal polls earlier this year when a majority of wards remained unfilled or the contestants were elected unopposed.

“New Delhi has often showcased peoples’ participation in elections as its victory in Kashmir. Today, when an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris have rejected the electoral process – giving a major setback to mainstream narrative – it is time for thd government of India to revisit its Kashmir policy,” said Hussain.

The need for it may be more pressing this time as the long overdue J&K Assembly elections could be just months away.