Srinagar: In the first major electoral exercise following the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir's special status and its bifurcation into two Union Territories, the election results of Block Development Council elections have thrown up a surprise for Bharatiya Janata Party.
Addressing a press conference on Thursday evening in Srinagar, Shailendra Kumar, Chief Electoral Officer, Jammu and Kashmir said that the state witnessed 98.3 percent polling in its first-ever BDC election. But the results were not what the BJP would have hoped.
"Out of total 307 blocks, independents won 217 blocks, whereas BJP got 81 blocks. One block was won by Congress and eight blocks went to Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party," said Kumar.
In the indirect election, which is conducted through voting by an electoral college comprising panchs and sarpanchs, Srinagar district witnessed highest polling with 100 percent turnout. The lowest polling was registered in south Kashmir's Shopian district with 85.3 panchs and sarpanchs turning up for voting.
The conduct of Block Development Council elections will pave way for the establishment of the second-tier of the three-tier Panchayati Raj system in Jammu and Kashmir.
For the BJP, the results signalled that the party's high-pitched battle cry over Article 370 abrogation didn't translate into support at the block level. Out of the total 218 candidates fielded by the saffron party in Jammu and Kashmir, only 81 managed to win. The loss for the saffron party is significant in the state's Hindu majority Jammu region.
According to the election results, the BJP had fielded 135 candidates in Jammu region. However, only 52 candidates managed to win. In the 2014 Assembly elections, BJP had emerged as the single largest party from the state's Jammu region with 25 seats. The party had also swept the 2014 Lok Sabha polls which marked the ascension of Narendra Modi as India's prime minister. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party had repeated its winning streak by winning all the three parliamentary constituencies of Jammu division.
In the Kashmir valley, where the party so far has failed to make an electoral mark in the Assembly and parliamentary elections, the results did carry a silver lining for the party. In Kashmir Valley, BJP had fielded 60 candidates, out of which only 18 managed to win. Eight of these wins have come from the militant hotbed of south Kashmir's Shopian district, where most of the candidates in the fray are Kashmiri Pandits living as migrants in Jammu.
On Thursday, elections were held in 280 blocks of Jammu and Kashmir. When the election for BDCs was announced in September, the state government had said that the elections will take place on 316 blocks in total. However, once the nomination papers were submitted by candidates, 27 candidates " 24 of them in Kashmir valley - were declared as winners uncontested. Out of the remaining ten blocks which didn't witness polls, six didn't have any candidates.
'We didn't know there's voting'
While the block offices of the rural development witnessed heavy deployment of security forces, the locals seemed indifferent to the polling. With communication services like internet and pre-paid mobile services still dysfunctional, many locals were puzzled when asked about the BDC polls.
"What polls?" cried an angry middle-aged man in Pulwama when asked if he knows about the BDC polls. "I don't know who's a panch or sarpanch here. We don't have to do anything with these elections."
The anger against the BDC elections also comes in the backdrop of a continuous shutdown in the Valley for the third consecutive month post 5 August. While Kashmir's entire mainstream leadership including three former chief ministers and a sitting Member of Parliament remains under detention following the Union government's decision on 5 August to strike down the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two union territories, hundreds of locals, activists and lawyers have been jailed after the government launched a crackdown ahead of the announcement.
At the same time, many of the panchs and sarpanchs elected last year are disconnected with their native villages due to the fear of militants. Many of them are camping inside government-rented private hotels in Srinagar.
"There's no doubt that a panch or sarpanch's life is under threat but we have to work," explained Abdul Rashid Khan, a sarpanch affiliated with BJP in north Kashmir's Bandipora district.
While the fear of militants looms over their heads, Khan believes that panchs and sarpanchs can still carry out their "developmental works" in their areas during the day. "We can't stay at home for the night. One has to be under protection of the police or be at some safer location. If the government can assure security of sarpanchs and BDC chairpersons at least, that can be helpful," said Khan, a resident of Bandipora's Asham area. Khan is also camping at a private hotel in Srinagar, some 40 kilometres away from his home, since he was elected as a sarpanch last year.
'A family of panchs and sarpanchs'
But not everyone is afraid. Abdul Rashid Dar's entire family is affiliated with Panchayati Raj. Once a loyalist of late Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and founder of Peoples Democratic Party Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Dar swears by the BJP these days. His wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law are also affiliated with Bharatiya Janata Party. During the 2018 panchayat elections, the entire Dar family contested and won all the seats unopposed.
On Thursday, Rohina Jan, one of Dar's daughters-in-law, was contesting for the post of BDC chairperson from the Baghati-E-Kanipora block of central Kashmir's Budgam district. Rohina was among the three candidates in the fray on the BDC seat that was reserved for women. Dar's entire family had reached the block office early morning on Thursday to cast their votes.
"She has won," an ecstatic Dar said after the declaration of results on Thursday evening."Rohina got 11 votes out of total 33 votes."
According to Dar, he's aware of the Kashmiri people's aversion to BJP, but his choice of joining the saffron party was driven by the "conduct" of Kashmir's local parties. "What was there left in Article 370? It was a mere shell and who allowed that to happen? It were these Kashmiri leaders who are in jail these days. It was them who eroded the state's special status. They deserve it," Dar said, while referring to the detained political leaders of National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party.
But not all find compatibility with the BJP in Kashmir. In central Kashmir's Ganderbal district, Ali Mohammad Ganie, an Independent candidate inched to victory by a mere margin of two votes in Sherpathri block. He defeated Bashir Ahmad Bhat, another Independent candidate, who got 14 votes.
"I was working as a district president of BJP in Ganderbal until 2018, but I was dejected. I quit the party due to some individual differences," Bhat said.
In Sherpathri block, 52 out of total 55 votes were cast in Thursday's election. Out of the total seven candidates in the fray, six, including Bhat, were Independents, whereas one was from BJP.
Elections under the shadow of the gun
At any given point of time inside Kakapora polling booth of south Kashmir's Pulwama district, the number of soldiers from Central Reserve Police Force and Jammu and Kashmir police outnumbered those of the electoral staff, voters and candidates.
By 10.45 am, the polling for Block Development Council elections in Kakapora panchayat block was over. All of the nine votes in the block had been cast.
But the task was not over yet for the electoral staff posted at the booth. According to the election commission guidelines, the polling was scheduled to conclude by 1 pm. The electoral staff had to open ballot boxes and start counting votes at 3 pm sharp following which they had to declare results and issue certificates to the elected BDC chairperson.
"It doesn't take much time for nine voters to cast their ballot. This is not a public election. Only panchs and sarpanchs have to vote," explained an official of the electoral staff.
This is how the first ever Block Development Council elections were held across the Kashmir Valley on Thursday. With an electorate of 7,028 panchs and sarpanchs up for voting in 104 blocks of the Valley, the polling was mostly over before the scheduled deadline of 1 pm. In comparison, the Jammu division had a total electorate of 18,015 panchs and sarpanchs who voted across 148 blocks.
There's a reason why the electorate in Kakapora block was minuscule. Out of the total 20 panchayat halqas that comprise Kakapora panchayat block, only two halqas " Lajoora and Pinglena " elected panchs and sarpanchs during the 2018 panchayat elections. On Thursday, it was those nine elected panchs and sarpanchs who had come to elect the Block Development Council chairperson for Kakapora.
But Kakapora panchayat block is not an exception. According to official data furnished by the Chief Electoral Officer, Jammu and Kashmir, around 60 percent panch seats in Kashmir are vacant whereas 34 percent of sarpanch seats have no candidates at all. So far, the government hasn't shown any inclination towards holding panchayat elections for these vacant posts in Kashmir Valley.
In south Kashmir, the authorities had another worry at hand " security of panchs and sarpanchs. "The panchs and sarpanchs who came to vote today were brought in bullet-proof vehicles of police and CRPF. All of them, except one, are Kashmiri Pandit migrants who live in Jammu. They have come from Jammu to cast their ballot," a security official posted at Kakapora panchayat polling station said.
Results not hard to predict
With the leadership of Kashmir's regional mainstream parties " National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party " under detention after the abrogation of Article 370, the only major political party to contest these elections was Bharatiya Janata Party.
Following the absence of National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party in BDC polls, Congress had also decided to stay away from the polls, thereby making the BDC elections a contest between BJP and independents. In fact, out of the total 1,092 candidates in the fray across the state, 853 were Independents.
The Kakapora panchayat block also saw a contest on similar lines. A local independent candidate Umar Jaan was pitched against Manoj Pandita, a Kashmiri Pandit migrant affiliated with Bharatiya Janata Party. Umar Jaan, a sarpanch, had the support of four panchs while as Pandita, who lives inside a government accommodation in Srinagar, had a support of three panchs.
Going by the scheme of things, it wasn't hard to predict the winner. By 3 pm, Umar Jaan was declared as the chairperson of Kakapora BDC with five votes. Interestingly, except Umar Jaan, none of the total nine panchs and sarpanchs live in Pulwama currently.
"I don't have the stature to comment upon the implications of the abrogation of Article 370," Pandita, the BJP candidate, said when asked if the scrapping of state's special status has made it challenging for grassroot workers like him.
"I am an ordinary worker. I wanted to ensure the development of the village where I grew up," he added. "Winning and losing is a part of the game."