‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new’ has proved true in respect of the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu & Kashmir with the successful completion of first ever third tier elections of District Development Councils (DDCs). A challenging and mammoth task executed brilliantly by the newly formed State Election Commission (SEC) with the help of vigilant and dedicated members of the security forces and JK Police. After the election of the DDC Chairmen and formation of the select committees and District Planning Commission, the DDCs will become fully functional and work in unison with the other two tiers, Halqa Panchayats and Block Development Councils (BDCs), to ensure that Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) are fully bedded in the UT ushering Naya Jammu & Kashmir.
With the PRIs fully functional, the centre of power in the UT will shift from the high profile Gupkar Road to the villages and towns with the actual stakeholders planning and executing the local area development. It was for this very reason that the Kashmir based political leadership which remained at the helms for last seven decades was unwilling to promote the Panchayat Raj because it went against the tenets of Dynastic Rule. For the Gupkaris self-interest and preservation/promotion of dynastic rule was always the paramount consideration since devolution of power would have meant the empowerment of the common man considered as an existential threat by the Gupkar elite. It is therefore not surprising that despite huge amounts of central assistance the common men are still yearning for the three basic amenities; connectivity, water and electricity. The Gupkaris excelled in emotional exploitation of the people through lofty slogans, false promises and manufactured narratives spin doctoring historical facts to suit their narratives. The successive governments in New Delhi were treated as “milch cows” by these leaders while at the same time widening the rift between the people and New Delhi. It was all fine as long as New Delhi submitted to their demands and pressures but moment it adopted a different approach or squeezed liberal flow of funds, New Delhi was portrayed as the enemy of the Kashmiris. Even New Delhi hardly ventured to establish a direct contact with the people and hence failed to read the pulse of the people.
Behind the shield of Articles 370 and 35A, the Kashmiri leadership began to feel indispensable and invincible. They even began to hold New Delhi at ransom demanding greater autonomy legitimising exclusivity which had resulted due to mass exodus of indigenous Kashmiri Hindus and other minorities gradually converting Jammu & Kashmir with a distinct identity of Muslim majority state enjoying special status of a “state within a state”. This trend needed to be reversed before it became irreversible.
The epoch making decision taken by Modi government on 05 August 2019, which ultimately reversed the trend, has now become a part of history of Naya Jammu & Kashmir. The three decades of violence also needed to be controlled and ultimately brought to an end. Father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi had said, “When the panchayat raj is established, public opinion will do what violence can never do.” With J&K fully integrated with the idea of One India One Nation, it was a matter of time before the panchayat raj was introduced and made functional like the rest of the country in the newly formed UT as well. The process in fact had begun earlier after the application of the President’s rule under the governorship of Satya Pal Malik who successfully conducted the elections to the first tier of halqa panchayats and urban local bodies. The concept was nascent hence took time to mature and gathered full steam only post 05 August 2019. J&K entered 2020 with rays of new hopes and aspirations.
Things were moving pretty when the deadly pandemic engulfed the entire world in the beginning of 2020 itself. In the UT, its impact began to be felt from March onwards.
Undeterred by the pandemic UT administration realised that it was racing against time since it had something to prove. The administration began to take many steps to strengthen the nascent Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) through their financial empowerment through direct funding and delegation of powers in keeping with the 73rd and 74th Amendments which had not been implemented earlier due to Article 370. The elected representatives were given training under the centrally sponsored scheme of Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan for the capacity building to enhance capabilities of Panchayats for inclusive local governance. Much needed protocol status was accorded to the Chairmen of Block Development Councils (BDCs) to enable them function with authority. The centre’s flagship e-governance programme for rural governance, the e-panchayat project to automate the functioning of the panchayats has also been implemented. Local governance through devolution of power to PRIs is the key to rural development, the area in which the UT lacks woefully.
Institutionalised corruption was another ill which J&K had prospered under the 370 regime. With the application of anti-corruption laws and formation of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, skeletons after skeletons emerged and action has begun to be taken against the defaulters. This caused worry among the political leaders who under the influence of power and shelter of 370 had thrown the statutes to the wind and allowed unbridled corruption under their watch. Their actions began to be questioned and challenged. The leaders not used to questioning felt threatened and advocated vociferously for return of status quo. The Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) also referred to as Gupkar Alliance, formed by the leaders of six mainstream Kashmir based political parties to fight for status quo, became more vocal and played the victim card as their names began to emerge in the Roshni scam, considered to be the biggest ever land scam in the erstwhile state.
The highlight and major achievement of the year has been the conduct of local bodies’ elections in November-December. A major gamble which has proved to be a game changer. In keeping with its intent of promoting Panchayat Raj, the administration announced elections to the vacant panches, sarpanches, BDC chairmen, urban local bodies and DDCs. A very big challenge since the elections were to be held on adult franchise basis. The newly introduced DDCs were to replace the earlier District Development Boards which were nominated as against the DDC which will be an elected body.
The elections were held on party basis. As expected after initial gimmicks and statements, the Gupkar Alliance also decided to participate in the elections making the same very interesting since these parties had earlier boycotted the BDC elections in protest to abrogation of 370. The PAGD this time decided to contest the election despite its rejection of the abrogation and subsequent introduction of the new laws. A tacit approval of the changed environment, it appears, despite statements to the contrary.
Allaying all fears and apprehensions the elections proved a great success. The gusto with which people of all ages came out of their houses ignoring the challenges of bad weather, harsh winter and terrorist threat proved their faith in the Panchayat Raj system. The participation in Kashmir has surprised many including the Gupkar Alliance. It has recorded massive increase across all ten districts in comparison to the 2018 Panchayat elections and 2019 Parliamentary elections. An achievement beyond expectations.
The election also had many firsts to its credit; no boycott call, first electoral exercise of the new UT, first elections under newly formed State Election Commission, West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis, Gorkhas exercised their franchise for the first time in local elections, reserved seats for STs and newly formed political party JK Apni party making its maiden electoral fray.
The ballot has ultimately emerged victorious over the bullet and grassroots democracy has begun to take firm roots in the UT. The people of J&K also need to be complimented for their whole hearted participation in this carnival of democracy. Political parties will interpret the election results based on the narrative they want to set post elections and claim victory but one thing is certain that democracy has already emerged victorious. The people have also given a befitting reply to those who were making loud noises like the complete loss of faith of the people in Indian democracy. The message is loud and clear that no place for “sub-nationalism” exists in Naya Jammu & Kashmir.
2020 is ending on a high note of successful resumption of political process with people pinning high hopes on their new leaders and the panchayat raj system. They hope that new system will dawn an era of change with focus on mitigating their problems through effective planning at grassroots level and judicious use of resources. The attempt by Gupkar Alliance to use the new system for forced verification of their retrograde ideology of return to status quo will have to be curbed by the people lest the entire exercise is hijacked away from its main aim by the vested interests. Nothing is static in this dynamic world. Change is the law of nature. Sooner the change is accepted by the status quo lobby better it would for the future.
The winds of change are imminent and the beginning was made in the year that has gone by. Naya Jammu & Kashmir with a strong and effective panchayat raj system will bring smiles on the faces of those felt cheated by their mainstream leaders who failed to meet their basic needs.