Jammu and Kashmir is gearing up for the eight-phase District Development Council polls set to begin on 28 November, and mainstream parties are rushing to organise campaigns amid COVID-19 and finalise seat-sharing deals. This is the first electoral exercise in the erstwhile state since its special status was revoked in August 2019.
The Union Territory administration had amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act in October this year, in a bid to provide for setting up of District Development Councils in each district, which will have directly elected members, marking the implementation of the entire 73rd Constitutional Amendment in the UT.
State Election Commissioner KK Sharma had said that by-elections to vacant panchayat and municipal seats will be held simultaneously and that the counting of votes will take place on 22 December.
At least 12,000 vacant panchayat seats and over 230 urban local body seats will go to polls along with 280 DDC seats, India Today reported.
However, the campaigning for the first phase of the election has been riddled with accusations of bipartisanship, terror threats as well as politicking over various topics, including the abrogation of Article 370.
On Thursday, the Jammu and Kashmir Police said that a plan to disrupt the DDC polls had been "foiled" after security forces killed four Jaish-e-Mohammad militants in an encounter near Jammu.
IGP, Jammu zone, Mukesh Singh, was quoted by The Indian Express as saying that the militants "were on their way to Kashmir and, going by the quantity of arms and ammunition seized from them, were planning "something very big".
Govt sources also told PTI on Friday that the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists were planning to execute a big plan on the anniversary of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.
Meanwhile, on the political front, candidates of the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), which comprises the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Communist Party of India (Marxist), Awami National Conference (ANC), the Jammu and Kashmir People's Conference (JKPC) and the Jammu and Kashmir People's Movement (JKPM), are reportedly unhappy over the inability to campaign freely.
Candidates not allowed to campaign freely
Nasir Aslam Wani, NC provincial president claimed that PAGD candidates have been "locked up" in hotels and guesthouses in several places and are not allowed to campaign.
"I have never witnessed this kind of electioneering... not since the political process started after the eruption of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. We have always had candidates running around. How can you expect somebody to campaign only between 12 noon and 3 pm?"
The NC leader said the claims of the UT administration and Union Home Minister Amit Shah about the situation being peaceful in Jammu and Kashmir were either wrong or they were trying to influence this election.
"If we listen to what the Home Minister or the state administration has to say, militancy has been wiped out. Then is this being done to influence the election? You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. You have to go one way about it. Either the situation is safe, as they claim, and let the candidates campaign. Or else, the security scenario is so bad that they cannot create a conducive environment. In that case, why have the polls then?" he added.
In a letter to Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, CPI(M) leader and convenor of the PAGD, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami said that candidates were not allowed to campaign due to "perceived threat to their lives" and had been bundled in "cluster accommodation".
"Confining candidates against their wishes has severely restricted their movement and ability to campaign. Even in some cases, they are not allowed to attend party meetings," the CPI(M) leader said.
Tarigami also said there had been instances that rival candidates were sent in the same vehicle and asked to campaign together. The former MLA said such arrangements were a big concern and there was a lot of dissatisfaction on the ground over it.
"Who wins and who loses, the decision must lie on the electorate. Democracy must finally win. For that, the process must be made secure and credible. It is advisable not to put avoidable restrictions on the contesting candidates and instead, their legitimate movement for the campaigning in their respective areas must be effectively facilitated," he added.
Gupkar Alliance on DDC polls
After expressing doubts about the polls, the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), which was created to seek the restoration of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, recently announced that the members will be contesting the election together.
The Gupkar Alliance came into being as a result of a series of meetings held at National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah's residence on the high-profile Gupkar Road in Srinagar. PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti too has her residence in the same locality. After her release, the Gupkar Declaration was formalised in October as the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD).
Congress was also part of the PAGD when it was originally signed and even included in the seat-sharing arrangement for the DDC polls, however, the deal seems off as the party has not been named in the PAGD seat-sharing arrangement announced for the third and fourth phase polls.
BJP on DDC polls
The BJP, which was part of a coalition government with Mufti's PDP till it pulled out of the government in 2018, has taken a tough stance on the Gupkar Alliance, which has "disrupted" the saffron party's "strategy" in the UT, say political analysts.
Perhaps that's why when the Congress entered into a seat-sharing talk with the Gupkar Alliance, Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to clarify the extent of the party's involvement with the Alliance.
Other BJP leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad also slammed the Congress over its alliance with PAGD after Mufti's comment on the Tricolour.
On 16 November, Shah wrote on Twitter: "The Gupkar Gang is going global! They want foreign forces to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir. The Gupkar Gang also insults India's Tricolour. Do Sonia Ji and Rahul Ji support such moves of the Gupkar Gang? Congress and the Gupkar Gang want to take J&K back to the era of terror and turmoil."
Prasad said, "Farooq Abdullah has no compunction in seeking the support of China for the restoration of Article 370 Mehbooba Mufti said she won't hoist the Tricolour unless the J&K flag is restored. Does the Congress support the statements of Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti? Congress should tell if they are with the stated objective of the Gupkar Declaration."
Congress' stand on DDC polls
Soon after the BJP's attack over the Gupkar Alliance, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala issued a statement, saying that the Congress is not part of the Gupkar Alliance or the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration.
Thereafter, NC leader Devender Singh Rana indicated that the seat-sharing talks with the Sonia Gandhi-led party had been called off.
He was quoted by The Indian Express as saying, "There are no talks going on between us and the Congress on seat sharing at this point of time. Congress' irresponsible statement is unacceptable and reflects the confusion in the mind of the party. They should clear the cobwebs in their mind and come out clearly on the issues pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir."
With inputs from agencies