Is 'Timely Election' in Kashmir a Gamble Worth Taking?

As the Election Commission readies to hold the Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections "on time", the question whether or not such a gamble is worth taking brooks a logical answer.

It is the duty of the poll body to organize elections in time and ensure that a government elected through free and fair elections takes office sooner rather than later.

It is also the duty of the Commission not to hold elections if the state cannot be sent into election mode because of valid constitutional reasons.

After all, the provisions of Governor's rule and President's rule (the state has its own constitution in addition to the Indian constitution and both are applicable here concomitantly) were conceived by the founding fathers of these constitutions because these are democratic provisions meant to ward off critical periods in the political history of the state.

Thus, nobody needs to shy away from the fact that Governor's rule or President's rule are part of Indian democracy and we need not sound apologetic if the same needs to be continued for a little longer to ensure elections are participative, credible and fair.

For the last three months, the state has undergone perhaps the most tumultuous period since its accession to India in 1947. Known for communal harmony, the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-majority Jammu region have never before been as communally polarized as now.

The movement in the valley for the revocation of the order for forest land allotment to a board managing the Hindu Amarnath shrine, the counter protest against the revocation order in the Jammu region, the perceived blockade of the Jammu-Srinagar highway and its fallout on the already bruised psyche of the Kashmiri Muslims have together created a situation where the emotional distance between Srinagar and Jammu as well as between Srinagar and New Delhi have increased manifold.

Separatist leaders who are in the business of opposing elections because they would otherwise cease to be 'separatist leaders' are now running the valley de facto.

The administration has been playing second fiddle to the separatist agenda by adjusting its work calendar to suit the calendar of shutdowns and marches.

Therefore, it is not because the separatists oppose elections that we must seriously re-think over holding them "on time".

Tens of thousands joined separatist marches not because they were called upon to do so by the separatists but because the people forced the leaders of the separatist cause to lead them.

More than 60 people, including senior separatist leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz, have died here during the present secessionist campaign. Nearly 1,000 people, including security personnel, have been injured in clashes.

Those favoring "timely elections" in the state argue that democracy means giving expression to the will of those who take part in the poll process and even a 2-5 percent poll percentage would be better than no elections.

Another reason cited in favor of "timely elections" is that Islamabad is wrapped in internal turmoil, which means we must rush the elections in Kashmir before Pakistan finds stability to pump in more armed guerrillas.

Nothing could be more faltered than this belief.

It is fundamentally Pakistan's strategic and political instability that gave rise to its proactive role in the Kashmir dispute.

A stable Pakistan should mean peace not only in our neighborhood but also in Kashmir because Islamabad's own stakes in peace would multiply manifold due to internal stability.

A possible five percent voter turnout is not the issue; the greater risk is that the elections could make the electioneering process look like a farce.

The second crucial question: if the elections are deferred, how would that help democracy in the state? After all, elections would have to be held latest by next spring. How much would have changed by then?

Yet, there could be a remarkable difference between now and then.

Both India and Pakistan are likely to open the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road for trade between the divided parts of Jammu and Kashmir by the beginning or the middle of the next month.

That is definitely going to act as a balm on the wounds of the locals.

The blockade or the perceived blockade is not in force now. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has promised good news on Jammu and Kashmir by the beginning of the next year.

India-Pakistan relations are likely to improve in the days to come. More important than anything else, the two countries would in all probability start the confidence building process which would now more closely focus on Kashmir.

Even if we have a voter turnout of 25 percent or more by the beginning of the next year, it would be far better and practical than the poll scenario if elections are held "on time".

In fact, holding elections "on time" could be quite different from holding them at the right time.

If the man running the affairs of the state is for "timely elections" because he wants to wriggle out of the mess and hand over the mantle to somebody, the central government should seriously think of replacing him with someone who can steer the place out of the present mess -- before Jammu and Kashmir can be put into an election mode.

(F. Ahmed is a journalist based in Srinagar. He can be contacted at f.ahmed@ians.in)


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