#Kashmir : Ghost Election

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Secret candidates, Invisible voters & Shame Results

Patriot Monitoring Desk

SRINAGAR: The recently held four-phased local body and municipal polls in Jammu and Kashmir did not prove more than a ghost election with secret candidates and invisible voters.

In Baramulla, a candidate won securing the lone vote cast; and in a Srinagar ward, nobody won, even the three candidates did not cast votes while as a BJP candidate won by eight out of total nine votes polled.

Interestingly even before first phase of polling for Urban Local Bodies, the BJP already got seven municipal committees in the Kashmir Valley. The party already had claimed that its 75 nominees have been elected unopposed.

Ironically 60 percent of 600 municipal wards in 10 districts of the Valley had either a single candidate getting elected unopposed or they remain vacant in the absence of any candidate at all.

Security personnel keep vigil as voters line up outside a polling booth in Bandipora on October 10, 2018.

The civic elections were boycotted by the National Conference and PDP, the two regional parties who have all along ruled the state, who say the centre is being duplicitous about its stand on the special status promised to J&K. The BJP’s opponent is the Congress, but this party failed to persuade members to run as candidates in most areas of the Valley. So the elections were largely about the BJP and independent candidates who were largely friendly to it.

Around 17 lakh electors were eligible to vote in the four-phased local body and municipal polls in Jammu and Kashmir which began from October 8. “As many as 16,97,291 electors were eligible to exercise their franchise in 1,145 wards across the state of J&K in four phases from October 8,” a senior election department officer said .

Out of the total 1,145 wards of municipality and local bodies, 90 wards were reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) and 38 for Scheduled Tribes (ST), which include 31 and 13 wards reserved for SC and ST women, respectively, he said. In addition to this, 322 wards were reserved for women belonging to open category, the officer said.

Srinagar: Security personnel stand guard at a deserted polling station during third phase of elections for urban local bodies, in Srinagar, Saturday, October 13, 2018.( PTI Photo/S Irfan) (PTI10_13_2018_000060B)

The Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) had the highest number of 6,63,775 electors with 74 wards followed by the Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC) with 75 wards and 4,00,301 electors. The first phase of polling were held on October 8, followed by the second phase on October 10, third phase on October 13 and the fourth and final phase on October 16.

In the first phase of ULB polls, only 8.2 per cent polling was recorded in Kashmir while 65 per cent voting took place in Jammu and 62.1 per cent in Ladakh. In second phase, Jammu registers 80 per cent voter turnout, while Kashmir registers only 3.4 per cent.

Continuing the low turnout trend, the Valley recorded 3.5% voting in the third phase in which lowest voting took place in Srinagar, with 1.8% turnout. While Jammu maintained its healthy trend at 81.4% in Samba.

A total of 365 candidates were in the fray for 96 wards in eight local bodies comprising a total electorate of 1,93,990 electors, in this phase. Worth to mention that voting in the Ladakh region was completed in the first phase held on October 8. Polling in Jammu region was completed in the third phase while Kashmir valley witnessed an abysmally low voter turnout of 4.2 per cent in the fourth and final phase. As many as 260 candidates will be contesting for 132 wards.

During the fourth phase polling was held in only 36 of the 132 wards in eight municipal bodies in six districts of Kashmir, after 52 candidates were elected unopposed and no candidate filed nomination in 44 other wards. As a result, only the wards from two municipal bodies of Srinagar and Ganderbal saw voting, in which 150 candidates were in the fray—38 in Ganderbal and 112 in Srinagar. No polling was witnessed in rest of the six municipal bodies in south Kashmir’s Pulwama and Anantnag districts.

This was the first election in India where people did not know who their candidates are. Election authorities have kept the names of candidates a secret. Publishing details of contesting candidates is mandatory but in the name of security, the state’s Election Commission had done away with it. The website had only the number of candidates who remain faceless.

At a polling station in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, on Saturday. (Express photo)

There were no flags or banners of any party including BJP which won many wards uncontested. No party or candidate held even a single public meeting to ask people to vote.

Shoaib Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar from an uptown locality, said people in his ward did not know who the candidates were at the time of polling. “Ask anyone here if they know who the candidates were. Everyone will tell you, they had no idea. There was” too much secrecy”, Ahmad, who works in a private company, said.

He alleged that the government was only interested in “showing” that an election was held, but not with the conduct of the polls in a proper manner.

A police official said the prevailing situation in Kashmir did not allow candidates to campaign openly as there was a threat to their lives. While separatists had called for a boycott of the polls, militants had threatened to target persons taking part in these elections.

“The candidates were given security and most of them were taken to secure locations, but the situation was such they cannot campaign. The threat was not only from militants, but from mobs as well,” the official said.

The complaints of ‘not knowing the candidates’ were not limited to the city. People in many other areas of the valley expressed ignorance regarding the details of the polls in their wards.

Ishfaq Ahmad, a resident of Ganderbal, which voted in the last phase on 16 October, said such was the level of secrecy that people were joking that only the candidates themselves knew they are standing in the elections.

“We had no idea who is contesting from our ward. There has been no campaign or door-to-door canvassing by anyone. Even the government did not put the details of the candidates on the election commission website. There were simply no details anywhere. Only the candidate would know that he is contesting. Perhaps, even their family does not, such was the secrecy, he said.

He said, “Most of the people would boycott the polls”, but relatives and friends of the candidates exercise their franchise.

The only thing remarkably visible was the overwhelming security used to conduct these polls. An additional 400 companies (40,000 personnel) of central paramilitary forces was brought in to assist the existing security set-up in Kashmir. We already have a permanent presence of 60 battalions of the CRPF, an equal number of Rashtriya Rifles units. BSF, ITBP, SSB and over 1 lakh of J&K police force. But the number of votes did not cross even the half of number of security personnel deployed for poll duty.

Finding candidates was a huge task for the state government after it announced the civic polls. The government rolled out SOPs including an insurance cover of Rs. 10 lakh for all candidates participating in elections. Government employees who are normally bound to perform election duties were also given an extra month’s salary to attend to poll duty. In this election, everything has a price tag.

A senior Congress leader said the atmosphere in the state was not conducive for polls, but the party decided to contest after the Centre “forced” the elections on the people.

“This is the most low profile election in the history of the state. We have not seen anything like this. The atmosphere was not conducive for the polls, but it was thrust on us by the Centre,” he said.

The Congress leader said the secrecy maintained by the administration over the whole process has cast a shadow over the exercise.

“We received complaints of people not knowing who is in the fray. See, the candidates were taken to secure locations and virtually put under house arrest. In such a situation only friends, relatives and party colleagues of the candidates may have come out to vote and you see the winning margins are very low,” he said.

Barring a few exceptions, all candidates were hiding and continue to remain faceless. A very few candidates stepped into the open or talked to media. The BJP’s only candidate willing to speak on camera was a former militant of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen,  Saifullah Farooq from downtown Srinagar. He returned from Pakistan in 2011 as part of the previous government’s rehabilitation policy.

In second phase out of 1,095 candidates, 65 have won the polls uncontested, including 61 from Kashmir Valley. According to officials no polling took place at 70 wards in the Valley as no nomination was received.

No nomination was submitted in all 13 wards of Frisal municipal committee of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, while only one nomination was received for 13 wards of Beerwah municipal committee in central Kashmir’s Budgam.

In Kulgam BJP candidates won 10 of the 13 municipal seats unopposed among eight seats are in Devsar and two seats in Kulgam.

No polling exercise was witnessed in three municipalities of the Central Kashmir’s Budgam district as there was no candidate or an opponent in any of the three municipalities including Chrar-e-Shareef, Magam and Beerwah which consist of 39 wards, 13 wards each.

In Chrar-e-Shareef nine candidates won uncontested and other two wards have no candidate. In Magam six wards had no candidate whereas the candidates of other seven wards won unopposed. In Beerwah only one candidate had filed nomination papers for ULB polls who won uncontested while 12 remaining wards have no candidate.

Polling officers sit inside a polling station during the fourth phase of local elections in Srinagar

From across the state among 78 uncontested wards 69 go uncontested in the Valley. In South Kashmir 30 wards go uncontested (5 in Kulgam, 8 in Devsar, 5 in Achabal, 8 in Kokernag and 4 in Qazigund).In Central Kashmir 24 wards go uncontested (9 in Budgam, 8 in Chadoora and 7 in Khansahib) while in North Kashmir 15 wards go uncontested (6 in Baramulla, 2 in Kupwara, 6 in Handwara and 1 in Bandipora). Across J&K, 1145 seats were up for grabs in 79 municipal bodies and a total of approximately 3005 candidates were in the fray.

Of the 598 wards in the Valley, not a single nomination paper was filed in 172 wards and there was only one candidate in 190 wards, ensuring there is no voting. Of the 40 municipal bodies in the Valley, there was no voting in at least 21 municipal bodies.

The victory of BJP candidates, even though without a fight, was a major success for the party which had previously failed to find a foothold in Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.

Not only that the Election Commission had come under criticism for keeping the names of candidates a secret, but also the change in the poll timings, advancing it by an hour on between 6 am and 4 pm during second phase raises questions.

Inayat Jehangir, a Srinagar based journalist tweeted, “This is perhaps for the first time in history of Jammu and Kashmir that polling will start before daybreak. Second phase polling to kick off at 6.00 am and sunrise in Srinagar is at 6.32 am. What is the logic?”.

Replying to his tweet former minister in PDP-BJP coalition government Naem Akhtar replied sarcastically, “3rd phase could be 6pm to 6am to make it completely transparent”, followed by a retweet with comment by former chief minister Omar Abdullah reading, “  Why are polling booths opening at 6AM? If I believed conspiracy theories I’d believe it’s because journalists won’t be around to verify the genuineness of voters at that very early hour”.

Prominent Journalist Nazir Masoodi writes in a blog, “Kashmir’s tryst with democracy has been problematic ever since the state’s accession with the union of India. The Congress is considered responsible for fraud elections and subverting democratic institutions. It was only during non-Congress regimes that the state experienced a better political culture and largely transparent elections. The first election said be free and fair was in 1977 under Morarji Desai’s Janata Party Government”.

Adding that, Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised another in 2002 from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Since then, elections held in Kashmir have largely been fair, if not entirely free because of civilian unrest, militancy and militarisation.

“But that process seems to have been reversed by the present regime. In the 1967 assembly election, the Congress regime tried to demolish the opposition using official machinery. The Deputy Commissioner of Anantnag, Abdul Khaliq, who was the returning officer for south Kashmir, rejected nomination papers of all opposition candidates to ensure that only ruling party candidates won the election. Those elected legislators are still remembered as Khaliq-made MLAs”, Masoodi states.

He said that Khaliq is an Arabic name which means creator. “There are many such Khaliqs in the present system who are creators of our new civic bodies representatives. Some commando bureaucrats and police officials are delivering on the orders of political masters in Delhi. The methods employed may be different but the objective remains the same as 1967. It’s expected that the BJP will rule most of municipal bodies in Kashmir where it has never been even a marginal player”, he adds.

NC general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar calls it “a mockery of democracy”. With the maximum candidates in its first foray into civic elections in the Valley, the BJP had already poised to capture a majority in seven municipal bodies. Thanks to the militant threat and the NC-PDP boycott, as many as 70 BJP nominees were elected unopposed. The majority of these are in the districts of Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama-south Kashmir’s hotbed of militancy where BJP men have never dared to set foot.

No elections were held at 420 out of the 598 municipal wards spread across the 10 districts of the Kashmir Valley. Of these 420 wards, there was no candidate in 184 wards, while in 236, candidates were elected unopposed.

There was no voting in at least 25 municipal bodies — 17 of them fall in south Kashmir, while five in central Kashmir’s Budgam district and three in north Kashmir.

In fact, in two municipal committees — Khrew and Frisal in south Kashmir — no candidate contested the elections while in Beerwah in central Kashmir and Awantipora in south Kashmir only one candidate filed his nomination for 13 seats each.

The vacant seats — over 50 per cent in some cases — have raised a question about the constitutionality and functioning of these municipal bodies.

The state election commission plans to conduct ‘byelections’ in such wards after the panchayat polls, sometime in January.

The results of urban local bodies election were announced on 20 October Saturday, which sharply underline that the turnout in Kashmir — 4.27 per cent — was the lowest in any election held in the state since 1951.

Until now, 1989 has been considered the worst year as far as election turnouts go — when militancy took hold of the Valley. In the Lok Sabha elections that year, the turnout was only 5.18 per cent in the Baramulla and Anantnag parliamentary seats that went to the polls — the candidate from Srinagar was elected unopposed.

Official numbers showed that Independents emerged as the single largest group in the elections in Kashmir winning 178 wards across 42 municipal bodies, including Leh and Kargil. The Congress won 157 wards and the BJP 100 wards in the Valley.

And with the PDP and NC announcing a boycott of the elections, a similar trend favouring independents characterised the results in Jammu where the BJP won 169 seats followed by independents at 167 and the Congress at 96.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Congress chief Saifuddin Soz on Saturday said the municipal bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir were ‘sham’ as the state’s premier party, National Conference boycotted the polls.

“It was tragic that the present dispensation in Delhi had not been able to sustain a workable relationship even with the mainstream in Kashmir which led the state’s premier party, National Conference to boycott the Local Body Elections that led to a ridiculous sham of an election of Local Bodies in Kashmir,” he said.

The results of the elections were so farcical that in one ward in the Valley, a candidate won where just three votes were cast; in Baramulla, a candidate won securing the lone vote cast; and in a Srinagar ward, nobody won, even the three candidates did not cast votes. While as  a BJP candidate Bashir Ahmad Mir won ward 74 of Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) as he got eight out of total nine votes polled in Bagh-e-Mehtab ward of the SMC.

Questions are being raised, how credible the democratic process is in which only a handful participated, either as candidates or as voters. The only positive lining in these elections was that unlike the past, the Valley did not witness even a single incident of violence during the four-phase election making it the most peaceful poll in the last three decades.