By Jay Bhagwan
The last time elections took place in Jammu and Kashmir there was violence and the Mehbooba Mufti-led government was forced to cancel the elections in the Anantnag constituency. By then close to 100 civilians were killed and several hundred others lost partial or complete eyesight.
The PDP-BJP alliance has now announced panchayat elections in the state from February 15. Analysts believe this is indication that mainstream politics is making a comeback after a hiatus following the killing of Burhan Wani. The panchayat polls are being seen as a means to empower people at the grassroots levels and involve their active participation in government.
The government has been saying that grassroots institutions such as panchayats help decentralise power and decision-making. The polls have now been pending for the past one-and-a-half years. Previous panchayats completed their term in July 2016. In September 2017, Home Minister Rajnath Singh asked the government to begin preparations for the reconstitution of panchayat institutions.
There has been a ‘constant push’ from the BJP for conducting polls. In one of its meetings in Jammu on December 22, the RSS-BJP coordination committee instructed BJP ministers to mount pressure on the PDP for holding panchayat elections.
The April 2011 panchayat elections saw a record 80 percent turnout. The elections were held a few months after the summer uprising of 2010, which saw 120 civilians killed. The then announcement of polls surprised many, but on polling day long queues outside polling booths dealt a setback to separatists who had called for a poll boycott.
The government is hoping for a repeat of 2011, though many think the time is not conducive. They believe the decision could lead to further violence. If all goes well mainstream politics will gain but in case of a backlash, the situation could turn ugly. The responsibility then will lie with the government.
The government believes protests and stone-pelting will peter out. Till six months ago, south Kashmir was out of bounds for mainstream politicians. Recently Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti held public outreach programmes in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag. Mainstream politicians have not been able to hold party functions without security. The situation is not very different in north Kashmir. The CM now hopes people will choose ballots over bullets.
But the separatists have raised their heads. The ‘joint resistance leadership’ of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik has called for the boycott of the polls which they said was meant to harm national interests of Kashmir.
The boycott call of the separatists is not the only challenge the government faces. Terrorists have also threatened to kill the polls. The Hizbul Mujahideen has threatened to ‘pour acid’ into the eyes of those who participate in the elections. The threat is palpable and is circulating on social media.
In the past, too, threatening audios and videos have surfaced on social media. The open threat by HM has made both security agencies and the government sit up. Much will depend on peoples’ reaction.
The decision to hold the panchayat elections comes at a time when Pakistan is embroiled in a tussle with the United States over the latter’s Afghan-policy. The US has forced Pakistan to clip the wings of terror kingpin Hafiz Saeed even as New Delhi and Islamabad await the hearing on Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav in the International Court of Justice. Jadhav was abducted by extremists from Iran and brought to Pakistan, where he has been tried and sentenced to death by a Pakistan military court of spying. He is on the death row now.
Caught in a cleft stick, Pakistan has veered more and more towards China. The United States has suspended security aid to Pakistan and the country will find it difficult to back the terrorist groups that have been pushing terrorists including suicide bombers into Kashmir. All this will have a bearing on the panchayat elections. There are enough number of entities in India itself who would want the exercise to come a cropper. All in all, the government has a tough task at hand. (IPA Service)