Jammu and Kashmir goes to elections on 17 November. This would be a seminal third round of hustings after militancy broke out in the state in 1989. Elections in 1996 and 2002 were regarded as free and fair and there is no reason to believe that the current ones under the watchful eye of the Election Commission in India would not be so. Elections are proposed to be held in seven phases keeping in view the need for deployment of election staff and security personnel. The first phase would begin on November 17, followed by polls on November 23, 30, December 7, December 13, 17 and 24. Results would be announced on December 28.
The National Conference was the first party to announce participation in the elections. But the Party was careful to delink participation from meeting aspirations of the people for solution of the dispute. 'The elections will not have any effect on Kashmir issue. And whether people participate in elections or not, it will not affect resolution of Kashmir issue,' was the line taken by National Conference president Omar Abdullah. Omar also highlighted to the cadres the challenges facing the Party in participation in the process. 'First, you have to face those who don't want the elections. Second challenge is from those parties which would participate and confront you. You have to defeat them,' he said.
The National Conference (NC) is a party which has always opted for elections and it has a strong hold in the rural areas in the Valley as well as the hill regions of Jammu. In the previous elections it had won more seats that the PDP, but the latter aligned with the Congress to form the government. The NC is hopeful of working on the anti incumbency factor to its advantage. Thus it is emphasizing more on normal day to day, bread and butter issues.
The PDP has also announced participation in the elections. It is fighting on an agenda for virtual autonomy for Kashmir, which delinks the region from other parts of the state. Knowing that its strength is in the Valley, the PDP leadership has shrewdly adopted such a volatile plan. The Hurriyat Conference and other separatist outfits on 19 October said they will boycott the assembly elections which they termed as a "futile exercise". "Hurriyat has nothing to do with this meaningless exercise and would ask the people to stay away from it as well," Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat moderates.
The logistics exercise for the elections is quite cumbersome. There are 8109 polling booths, with 4,378 in Kashmir and 3,731 in Jammu division; quite a few of them are in remote areas where the polling staff would have to trek on foot for many days. The Valley had a total electorate of 32,60,663 in January-February. The district-wise break-up is: Kupwara 3,41,004, Varmul (Varmul+Bandipore) 7,04,284, Srinagar (Srinagar+Ganderbal) 6,94,760, Budgam 3,83,914, Pulwama (Pulwama+Shopian) 4,32,434 and Islamabad (Islamabad+Kulgam) 7,04,264.
The electorate of Jammu division as per the revised rolls is 30, 84,417. The district-wise break-up of the division is: erstwhile Doda, 4,58,621, Rajouri 3,53,457, Poonch 2,59,580, erstwhile Udhampur 4,93,694, Kathua 4,02,747, erstwhile Jammu 11,16,318.
There are sound reasons for early polls in Kashmir as return to a democratically elected government is the best form of governance for the people that would reduce burden on the administration both in the Centre as well as in the state. The battle between the pro and anti election lobbies in Kashmir is likely to intensify in the days ahead. With the Congress, National Conference and PDP in the fray the election campaign is likely to gather momentum. Simultaneously the anti election campaign would be some what muted with pressure from the security forces and its impact would be in the urban areas in Kashmir rather than the rural areas.
With the parties fighting in Kashmir on a similar agenda PDP of self rule and NC of autonomy, elections are delicately poised particularly in constituencies where there is likely to be low polling. Here personal standing of local candidates may make a difference swinging the votes in his favour.
In most of the rural areas polling generally exceeds over 40 percent and this trend is likely to be sustained, with some areas even registering polling over 60 percent. The critical areas of downtown Srinagar and Sopore amongst others are not likely to register very high percentage even being restricted to single digit. Here the candidates who wins even a few thousand votes may be declared a winner and this is probably motivating a large number to jump in the fray.
While the electoral results will be known almost a month and a half later on counting of votes on 28 December, the people and the main stream political parties of Kashmir have already given a strong verdict against the separatists. This group of political radicals in the state is holding the masses to ransom and preventing the fruits of development reach the grass roots by their dissident agenda. Ironically all separatist leaders living in plush bungalows in Srinagar are beneficiaries of the very state that they oppose and have nothing in common with the youth whom they incite to violence in the streets of Srinagar.
The elections should drive home the message to their supporters that democracy, development and political aspirations can go hand in hand for there is enough scope in the manifestos of parties participating in the elections which will provide autonomy with responsibility, the ultimate test of democracy.