The union territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir will have its first direct elections, the District Development Council (DDC) polls, in eight phases starting on November 28. Local body elections in Ladakh, the other union territory which came into existence after the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir were held in October.
After the union government’s decision to revoke the erstwhile state’s special status in August 2019, politics has undergone a fundamental shift in the region, especially the Kashmir valley. A large number of commentators see the downgrading of the state’s constitutional status as a snub to the mainstream political parties, which unlike separatists advocated engagement with India’s constitutional apparatus. Most important Kashmiri political leaders were arrested ahead of the centre’s decision. They were released gradually, with former chief minister Mahbooba Mufti becoming last month the last important politician to be freed from detention. After being released and just before the DDC polls, leaders of seven political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have announced formation of an alliance called the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a joint resolution issued by major mainstream political parties of Jammu and Kashmir on August 4, 2019, against the nullification or modification of the state’s special constitutional position. They also announced that they will contest the upcoming DDC polls together. What explains the decision of the erstwhile adversaries to come together? An HT analysis shows that both political arithmetic and chemistry could be behind the move.
Showcase unity to ensure voter turnout
There is reason to believe that the centre’s decision to effectively nullify Article 370 has led to widespread resentment in the Kashmir valley. Voter turnout in the DDC polls will be the first litmus test of the magnitude of this resentment. Voter turnout had fallen sharply in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and in by-polls held before that in the Kashmir valley. The erstwhile state had been engulfed in yet another spell of political turmoil since protests erupted after the killing of militant Burhan Wani by the security forces in 2016. By burying their earlier differences and making the restoration of status quo ante their main demand, the PAGD constituents might be trying to channelize this simmering discontent towards a democratic mandate to champion their demand and reaffirm their political legitimacy.
But will it make a difference to election results?
The parties in the PAGD, put together, have won a majority of seats in all assembly elections held in Jammu and Kashmir since 1996, when the electoral process resumed after a gap of nearly a decade after armed insurgency erupted in the region. The new alliance was stronger even in the Lok Sabha polls. An analysis of the last five Lok Sabha elections shows that these parties put together had a lead in a majority of assembly segments in all these elections, except in 2019. This suggests that pure political arithmetic might not have been the main reason behind the formation of this alliance.
Can the PAGD hurt the BJP in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir?
Simple arithmetic suggests that the PAGD might not make a big dent in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) performance. The reason for this is that the BJP’s electoral stakes are concentrated in the Jammu region of the UT, where Hindus have a significant share of the population. This is especially true in the four Hindu-majority districts of Jammu, Udhampur, Samba and Kathua. Eighteen of the 25 assembly constituencies (ACs) the BJP won in the 2014 assembly polls came from these four districts. In 12 of these ACs, the BJP’s vote share was more than 50%, which would make any kind of opposition alliance irrelevant there. This factor makes BJP a strong party in select parts of Jammu while the Congress and the newly formed alliance are strong in most of the Kashmir region and a significant part of the Jammu region.
Is the PAGD a pre-emptive strike to neutralise the delimitation effect?
The ongoing process of delimitation of constituency boundaries in Jammu and Kashmir, which will also increase the number of ACs from 83 to 90, could change electoral equations in the state. Several ACs have sub-regions dominated by different religious communities. If there were to be a calculated redrawing of boundaries, for example one that increases the share of Hindu population in some Muslim-dominated ACs, then the political arithmetic can change. The case of two adjacent ACs of Jammu district – Ranbir Singh Pura and Bishnah – is one such example. The BJP won Ranbir Singh Pura in 2014 by a margin of 22% votes while it lost Bishnah by a margin of just 4% votes. The booth level result shows us that the BJP had pockets of very strong support in both of these constituencies while there were also booths where the support was very weak. A careful redrawing of boundaries between these two constituencies, for example, can easily tilt the political arithmetic in the BJP’s favour.
The DDC polls will signify a new epoch in the political history of Jammu and Kashmir. From political participation to election results, everything could change drastically from what it has been in the past. It is these tectonic changes which might have caused the erstwhile adversaries to come together in the PAGD.
By Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa/HT