The Lead

What do we know, so far, about elections in Jammu and Kashmir?

The Bhartiya Janta Party, the National Conference, Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, Sajad Lone’s Peoples’ Conference, and the ambitious upstart Aam Aadmi Party are in full election mode. While the Congress suffers from its leadership paralysis and Peoples Democratic Party weighs in on options of its role but potential contenders within both parties are more eager for elections than ever before.

Fatigued, desperate and ambitious, all sorts of politicians in Jammu and Kashmir appear to be highly convinced that elections to the first Legislative Assembly of the Union Territory could just be round the corner.

Some expect an announcement from Election Commission soon after the pilgrimage to Amarnath shrine is over, while the more optimistic of them think that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could make a statement about elections and restoration of statehood in his Independence Day speech. Expectations of Vajpayee style Independence Day CBM (Confidence Building Measures) had also run high after Prime Minister did his all-party meeting with leaders of Jammu and Kashmir parties in June last year.

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The Bhartiya Janta Party, the National Conference, Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, Sajad Lone’s Peoples’ Conference, and the ambitious upstart Aam Aadmi Party are in full election mode. While the Congress suffers from its leadership paralysis and Peoples Democratic Party weighs in on options of its role but potential contenders within both parties are more eager for elections than ever before. The spoilers -as one looks at the nature and number of militancy related incidents -may also be gearing up.

Also Read | Polls in J&K after delimitation exercise: Amit Shah

What is the basis of ‘overconfidence’ that Jammu and Kashmir leaders have this summer as they see elections happening upcoming autumn? In fact, the more relevant question is ‘why anyone should doubt otherwise when Delimitation Commission has completed its process and next natural step must be elections.

Since August 5, 2019, the Center, including the Prime Minister and the Home Minister have remained consistent in their statements of “elections after Delimitation process is complete” and “statehood at an appropriate time”. These two questions were also listed in the current session of Parliament. In replies, the government remains consistent on “appropriate time for statehood” but has given fresh context to the question of elections: “this is a prerogative of the Election Commission of India”.

In last three years, we have only one ‘nearly definite’ statement on elections and that came from the Home Minister. In an interview on February 24, 2022, Amit Shah said, “the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir will be held within six-eight months of the completion of delimitation exercise which is about to get over”. “There is no confusion”, he emphasised.

Again, on March 30, the Home Minister had told the Parliament, “Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir will be held once the delimitation exercise is over and after consultation with political parties”.

We have no interest in keeping Jammu and Kashmir under President’s Rule,” Shah had said in Lok Sabha while responding to concerns raised by some members.

The Delimitation Commission announced its final award on May 6. Almost three months have passed since. Home Minister’s suggestion of six months from Delimitation exercise means elections anywhere between November this year to January 2023. That would be peak wintertime with nearly half of populated areas under snow, rendering a lot of places inaccessible. Jammu and Kashmir going to elections in winters is nothing unusual -last phase of 2014 elections was on December 20 -but from logistic and security perspective this is unadvisable. When asked by the Commission, security agencies will strong reasons to advise against elections in winters.

Also read |Assembly polls in J&K within 6-8 months: Shah

Déjà vu

From the point of view of Home Minister’s promise of six to eight months after Delimitation, the politicians from BJP, NC, AP, PC and AAP are right on the track as electoral activities pick up two to three months before elections. But here comes a feeling of Déjà vu which distracts us from imagining elections anytime soon.

Half a year after fall of highly discredited coalition of Peoples Democratic Party and Bhartiya Janta Party, Jammu and Kashmir threw itself into a full drawn election season when announcement from the Election Commission, together with 2019 Lok Sabha elections, was seen as a mere formality. A quick look at the newspaper archives of January-February 2019 would suggest that National Conference was expecting a floor majority, if not two-thirds of the House strength. A number of high potential leaders from PDP and other parties, a former Judge of the High Court, retired and serving bureaucrats queued up at the Gupkar Road suggesting that Omar Abdullah could just be the next Chief Minister.

So sure of elections, Shah Faesal, a young bureaucrat, resigned from the prestigious IAS to launch his own party. His initial exchange of tweets with Omar Abdullah and then sudden announcement for his own party suggested that reading in New Delhi was clear about National Conference’s rise.

Assembly elections not happening together with Lok Sabha elections was no one’s imagination.

When Election Commission came for assessment of situation, Governor Satya Pal Malik’s administration, practically helmed by Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam, and the security agencies said that conditions were not good enough to have the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections together.

As it unfolded on August 5, 2019, the Center obviously had other ideas on the mind. Holding elections, having a legislature and a political executive hostile to its ideas, say for example a government of National Conference, would have proved a major roadblock to BJP’s plans of abrogating Article 370.

Absence of legislature and political executive made it smooth for the Center to carry out the transition. Removal of Article 370 or full application of the Constitution of India required consent of Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. In absence of Assembly its powers are vested in the Governor who signed the mandatory recommendation. Post August 5, a centralised bureaucratic and security regime has helped the authorities manage and control the situation.

Is Jammu and Kashmir ready for elections?

Was ‘August 5’ just about symbolism of removing a much politicised and nearly redundant Article? For those ‘who did it’, ‘August 5’ was and is about creating new political realities. Most of those desired realities are still BJP’s imagination. In the backdrop of the Constitutional changes and heralding of new political environment, 2022 is too early to say that effects of August 5 have been absorbed and Jammu and Kashmir is ready to move on.

Outcome of elections is most uncertain of all possibilities in politics. An election that returns to power a party hostile to the August 5 events could spell disaster one would not like to see in a strategically volatile region of Jammu and Kashmir. Even as the Union Territory’s Law and Order and major policy decisions would remain a domain of the Home Ministry and the Governor a practically superior authority over the Chief Minister, but an elected government of a non-BJP alliance would still have the potential to keep New Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir in a permanent mode of confrontation.

To enable the ‘August 5’ plant take firm roots, the Center would ideally like to see a government of the BJP take charge or a much longer direct rule through the Lieutenant Governor. Despite a Delimitation award much to its advantage and a free hold on political space for over four years, the BJP may well be poised to be the largest legislative party but highly unlikely to get anywhere closer to halfway mark on the floor of Assembly. At least two local rival parties, both frantically eager to be counted among allies of the Center, promise very little to make up for the BJP’s floor deficit. Unless there is a massive pressure from the ground, anyone who steered ‘August 5’ would like to see the current arrangement continue for a while.

Are there any compelling circumstances?

While hundreds of political leaders may be more than eager for an early election but a mass movement across Jammu and Kashmir for restoration of legislature is highly unlikely. There is an obvious fear factor of who takes charge after an election. In Jammu, particularly in the Tawi catchment areas, people have a liking for the current system in two counts: It is the BJP led Center that is ruling by default and an election may return a Kashmir based amalgam much to the disliking of Dogra heartland. In Kashmir, the division in the political landscape is so deep that any party demanding elections will be projected by the rest having entered an ‘understanding’ with the Center. Except PDP, the most recent embarrassed partner of BJP, no party in Kashmir looks averse to an ‘understanding’ with the Center but they don’t want it to be publicised in the public. The Center, therefore, has a good knowledge of the ground situation which is unlikely to pose any challenge to the current ruling arrangement.

Also read | Delimitation Commission challenged, SC puts Center, ECI, J&K on notice, case listed for Aug 30

When to expect elections?

On July 13, the Election Commission of India wrote a letter, related to electoral roll revision, jointly addressed to five authorities -the Joint Secretaries in Ministries of Defence, Home and External Affairs and Director General, Border Roads Organisation. The fifth addressee were, jointly, the Chief Electoral Officers of Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir. As per the above letter, the ECI scheduled the draft publication of electoral rolls for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh for August 12, and for Jammu and Kashmir the date is September 1. The final publication of the last parts of electoral rolls for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh is scheduled for October 10, and similarly October 31 for Jammu and Kashmir. The current term of Assemblies in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh is expiring in January-February 2023. These states are ready for elections in November-December this year. As per Home Minister’s statement of ‘elections six to eight months after delimitation’, the current sequence of events hints at catching up this deadline. But circumstances in Jammu and Kashmir are highly dynamic with elements of surprise.

There is a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the very existence of the Delimitation Commission. The petitioners have questioned singling out of Jammu and Kashmir for delimitation based on 2011 census while the deadline for rest of the country is 2026. Major political leaders dismiss the petitioners as ‘small time publicity souls’, but the Supreme Court has already issued notice to all relevant parties and set August 30 as date for next hearing. An outcome of this petition, listed before same bench which is hearing Article 370, will be interesting to watch. A certainty of the dates will arrive only when the Election Commission makes a formal announcement.


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About the author

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Zafar Choudhary

A journalist since 1999, Zafar Choudhary is also a policy analyst and author. An alumni of the London School of Economics, his book ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’ addresses a critical gap in scholarship on Kashmir. Zafar is founder and editor of The Dispatch

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