Elected district development councils must be a first step in kickstarting political process in J&K — not a substitute for it
The amendments to the Jammu & Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act to facilitate direct elections to the second tier of local government, the district development council, are evidently intended to kickstart the political process in the Union Territory, infuse some guided political energy into the post-August 5, 2019 environment, especially in the Valley, and pave the way for all those desirous of finding a political foothold in “naya” Kashmir. With the holding of Assembly elections tied to the contentious delimitation exercise, and given that participation is uncertain with regional political parties firm on the demand for a return to statehood and special status, election to the DDCs will be a first test of how deep the waters really run. The Centre may calculate that getting enough people to contest the DDC elections would help weaken the Gupkar narrative, which in its third reiteration last week, following the release of PDP chairperson Mehbooba Mufti, resulted in the coming together of the regional parties as a People’s Alliance. The recently created Apni Party, hacked out from the PDP, has been itching for a role.
Individuals in the mainstream regional parties, especially those overlooked for nominations in previous Assembly elections, may also see the DDCs as a career opportunity. The BJP is waiting in the wings, too. Earlier, the DDC was filled through nominations. The rationale behind holding direct elections to 14 DDC constituencies in each district is that being chosen through a democratic exercise might give candidates and the DDCs a measure of credibility. The initial responses of the NC and PDP have predictably not been favourable. PDP leader Naeem Akhtar, for instance, has said the move is aimed at depoliticisation by cutting up the UT into “district assemblies”, and to reduce Kashmiri political aspiration to the solving of district level water-electricity-road problems.
For the DDC elections to achieve the Centre’s many objectives, the entire exercise will need to be substantially different from how the 2018 panchayat elections went down. In that election, candidates were too ashamed to admit they were contesting, and could not appear in public because they feared for their lives. Those who won, some of them because they were the only contestants in their halqas, did not surface for months afterwards. In many panchayat halqas there were no candidates and the elections could not be held. In the DDC elections, the NC and PDP will need to consider the opportunity costs of a boycott even as they weigh it against the price of participation. They do not have an easy choice, but they would do better to engage with the political process, even as they oppose, argue and debate. The Centre, too, should be aware of the limitations of a bonsai democracy in J&K. Sri Lanka is a cautionary example of how an elected body with no powers except to lay roads and repair the drains is not an answer to the political aspirations that lie behind the demand for greater autonomy. The restoration of statehood to J&K has to be prioritised, and Assembly elections.
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