The maiden District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir, being held in eight phases, are no doubt historic but they are also of existential consequence for the entire political spectrum in the Valley.
The regional parties, which have dominated Valley politics for decades and have been finding themselves on a sticky wicket since the abrogation of Article 370, are trying to reclaim their ground. For the BJP, the elections are no less than a mission to break free Jammu and Kashmir politics from the Valley’s dynasties and carve out an alternative reckoning.
Why is it a mission for BJP?
Finding a mission in the local body elections may seem far-fetched. But for the BJP, the first DDC polls in Jammu and Kashmir are like one. For some time now, the party has been desperately trying to build an alternative to the two prominent dynasties — the Abdullahs and the Muftis.
A couple of years ago, it tried to push Sajjad Lone, Engineer Rashid, and now this is an open secret that it is backing Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party. The Apni Party is being projected as a third front initiative while the opposition in the Valley refers to it as the ‘King’s party’.
The local polls are an opportunity for the BJP to spring up new faces that can then be groomed for the Assembly prospectus. The conditions for this are not unfavourable. Compared to just a few years ago when it was unimaginable that the BJP could have a cadre in the Valley, the party has been gradually getting members into its fold.
Even though some have been targeted by the terrorists to instill fear, new ones are not hard to be found. The Panchayat elections, which were boycotted by the regional parties — the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — provided the much-needed opportunity for the party in the Valley. It could install its Sarpanches at some places.
In the DDC polls, the BJP wants to get as many berths as possible. It is fielding its own candidates and at places is backing independents as well. Former Chief Ministers and alliance partners Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have alleged that their candidates are not being allowed to campaign freely and are being locked up on the pretext of security.
Parties allege that in the name of security the candidates have been put up in hotels and are being allowed to campaign between 12 noon and 3 p.m. only. While the administration says security of the candidates is paramount, Omar Abdullah has said the administration is helping the BJP.
BJP’s national vs. anti-national campaign
When Union Home Minister Amit Shah dubbed the Gupkar Alliance as a gang and said “either the Gupkar Gang swims along with the national mood or else the people will sink it,” it was clear that the BJP was trying to set an agenda for the polls. It sought to bracket the Kashmir dominated Gupkar Alliance as an anti-national platform and has tried to put the Congress also in the same bracket.
The alliance’s failure to condemn the terror strikes in the UT has given ammunition to the BJP. Trying to corner the alliance on the terror and the separatist agenda front, the BJP has also been trying to make corruption an issue. Besides labelling the alliance as ‘gang’, the BJP also calls it a ‘gumrahi’ gang (deceiving gang).
The high octane ‘patriotism’ laced sloganeering may help the BJP whip up sentiment in Hindu-dominated Jammu but the going may not be as good in the Valley. In Kashmir, its main attacking points are corruption, need to break free from dynasty politics and the promise of development.
The BJP is aware of the reality in Kashmir; therefore, it is pushing for fresh and new faces through the DDC polls to give the feel of alternative power to the common people.
Gupkar Alliance’s strategy
Formed a day before the abrogation of Article 370 was announced on August 5, 2019, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — an alliance of six regional Valley-based parties formed to seek the restoration of the erstwhile state’s special status — sprung a big surprise when it decided to participate in the local body polls. In fact, it disrupted the BJP’s strategy to get its people elected in the absence of any contest.
The NC and the PDP had boycotted the Panchayat elections in Kashmir, which had given a walkover to the BJP. Both the NC and the PDP realized the mistake, and hence, the decision to fight the DDC polls.
The sole aim of the PAGD is to prevent the BJP from recording a facile win in the upcoming elections in the UT, valley in particular. And the BJP, which changed the face of Jammu and Kashmir, wants to dig in its heels.
While the BJP makes nationalism its plank, the PAGD has been whipping up sentiment on the basis of religion and land. In Kashmir, it is provoking fear about the BJP’s attempts to change the demography, and in Jammu it is working on the fear that their land will be grabbed by the big and powerful from the rest of the country.
Congress is playing silent
After the BJP’s high noise about Congress’s links with the ‘Gupkar Gang’, the Congress has officially chosen to distance itself from the PAGD. But on the ground there seems to be a tacit understanding between the two.
For instance, PAGD is not contesting in Anantnag as the Congress has put up its candidate there. Similarly, in Jammu the Congress is not making much headway among the people. The Congress is silent after its flip-flop on its alliance with the PAGD. Many of its tall leaders, like Ghulam Nabi Azad, seem to be absent from the scene.
High stakes in local polls
This may appear hyped up, after all, these are just local elections. But in Jammu and Kashmir, which has just opened up for the country, the stakes are high. These polls are being seen as a preparation for the Assembly polls, whenever they are held. And, how political parties fare in these local polls will, most probably, lead to a similar pattern in the Assembly elections.
If the pattern does not produce a clear picture, then will the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council – Kargil type arrangement come into being where the BJP and the NC are working together? In Kashmir, the PAGD is most likely to emerge in a better position, but in Jammu the cake may be the BJP’s. (Agency)