Parliamentary elections in Jammu and Kashmir unveiled numerous political aspirations and realities of the state. Images of deserted polling booths and low voter turnout have certainly made the headlines, creating a shock and awe effect. Even so, the polling process, despite apprehensions of violence, remained largely peaceful, and as such was successful. In any case the images aside, the elections brought some of the hard realities in sharp focus.
Surprisingly, it was by and large a violence free election. Barring a few incidents of minor stone pelting, the election process went unscathed - during first phase of polling one civilian lost his life in a stone-pelting incident. Contrary to this, the 2017 by-election for the Srinagar constituency witnessed at least 200 incidents of violence which claimed the lives of 8 civilians. Owing to the fear of violence, the by-polls for Anantnag PC had to be called off and the seat remained vacant for 2 years. Numeruous analysts had in fact argued that holding elections in Jammu and Kashmir may remain a bleak possibility for a long time. Before the election there was a fear of terror attacks directed to disrupt the electoral process. However, a well thought out security plan ensured the safety of voters and candidates.
Surprisingly, it was by and large a violence free election. Barring a few incidents of minor stone pelting, the election process went unscathed.
, there is a need for the the elections in Jammu and Kashmir to be judged with a different yardstick. Most of the elections before 1996 were marred by widespread rigging and often coercion of the voters. To this end, the 2019 election was undeniably free and fair. There were no allegations of any sort of rigging or subversion. That in itself has been an achievement of every election after 1996.
, the voter turnout was relatively better than in the by-polls of 2017 and the panchayat/ULB polls. The data shows that the Kashmir valley – encompassing three parliament constituencies of Srinagar, Anantnag and Baramulla - has historically shown a lesser degree of enthusiasm towards the Lok Sabha elections in comparison to Assembly elections. Voting percentages post the elections of 1996 have constantly remained on the lower end during the parliamentary elections. This was despite a thumping voter turn out in the assembly elections. Due to the blanket corruption and nepotism in the governance system the voters invest substantially more energy in electing the state government hoping for bigger doles and handouts in return. Parliamentarians are believed to have a lesser role in dishing out doles so their utility in the eyes of voters in limited.
Post-1996, the highest voter turnout in the parliament elections was in the general election of 1998 which recorded 33% polling in the valley. The turn out in 1999 and 2004 was 17% and 22% respectively. During the elections of 2009 and 2014, the voting turnout in the three parliament constituencies was 31%, despite the fact that the levels of violence were comparatively minimal and a sense of normalcy had returned to the state.
, notwithstanding the fact that there has been a significant impact of election boycott in certain phases of the parliament election, the overall turnout in the valley stood at 19%. Among the three constituencies of Kashmir valley, the Baramulla (North Kashmir) recorded 35% polling– with little impact of boycott – just 4% less than the general elections of 2014. The voter turnout and election campaign in this constituency was absolutely normal.
The voter turnout and election campaign in this constituency was absolutely normal.
There has been a significant improvement in the turn out in the Srinagar (Central Kashmir) constituency which recorded an abysmal 7% polling in the by-election of 2017. Srinagar polled 14% votes this election contrary to the 25% in 2014. It was only in Anantnag (South Kashmir), that the turn out was paltry 9 % in comparison to the 28% in 2014. The effect of election boycott was mainly in the Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies. District-wise data of the three constituencies demonstrates that the polling remained in single digits only in Shopian, Pulwama and Srinagar districts.
There has been a significant improvement in the turn out in the Srinagar (Central Kashmir) constituency which recorded an abysmal 7% polling in the by-election of 2017. Srinagar polled 14% votes this election contrary to the 25% in 2014.
While in North Kashmir (Baramulla PC) people have expressed a glimmer of hope and promise in electoral politics, South and Central Kashmir has largely chosen to remain aloof from the election process. The mood was festive in North Kashmir (Baramulla PC), in the run up to the elections. Robust campaigns led to large and enthusiastic crowds in election rallies and eventually a high voter turnout in North Kashmir. Videos
of youth dancing in glory during the elections for this Lok Sabha seat went viral on social media.
Owing to the fear of gun and the prevalence of militancy, the campaign in Anantnag PC lacked the energy and vigor, and the polling booths appeared deserted. This wasn’t at all surprising - for the reality of South Kashmir is that of gun, gore, violence, militancy and the nihilism associated with it.
On the contrary, the people of Ladakh and Jammu regions came out to vote in overwhelming numbers. Around 70% polling was recorded in all three parliamentary constituencies of Udhampur, Jammu and Ladakh. Far from the ideas of separatism and militancy, both regions have a diametrically opposed political aspiration – that of prosperity, development and most importantly integration.
The people of Ladakh and Jammu regions came out to vote in overwhelming numbers. Around 70% polling was recorded in all three parliamentary constituencies of Udhampur, Jammu and Ladakh.
Since the 1996 elections, boycott calls have proven to be fairly effective only in parts of the Kashmir valley. Mainstream political parties have taken a cynical advantage of the election boycott and utilized it as a strategy to win elections. For instance, some assembly segments of Srinagar have continued with election boycott since the rigged election of 1987 and this has proven advantageous to one political party. In fact, the political parties and candidates create scenarios which lead to boycott in the areas where the rival candidates/parties are stronger. Over the years this election boycott has become fundamental to the social engineering of the parties. This could have additionally been one of the many factors for low turn out.
Over the years this election boycott has become fundamental to the social engineering of the parties. This could have additionally been one of the many factors for low turn out.
Arguably Ladakh, Jammu and the North Kashmir areas of the state are prisoners to the reality of South Kashmir. Time and again, people of these regions have shown greater faith in democracy and got very little attention from the political parties in return. Successive governments have failed to deliver on the promises of development in the state and if the issues of people are not addressed the faith in elections will only deteriorate.
The indifference towards the elections in South and Central Kashmir is linked to the fate of Peoples Democratic Party – the soft separatist party which amalgamated the elements of erstwhile Muslim United Front into a new political movement. The party had an overall vote share of 22% in the assembly elections of 2014. Yet its alliance entering into a coalition with the BJP has cost it heavily.
Since the 1996 elections, the party managed to pull a large chunk of vote base. On one hand, it co-opted the votes of Jamaat e Islami, which had a large influence in south and north Kashmir. On the other hand the PDP weaned fence sitters away from the election boycott politics of the separatists. However, in the 2019 election most of the strongholds of PDP recorded very low polling which indicates a shift of public mood from soft separatism to a more hardline separatist position. Although in North Kashmir, the losses of PDP became the gain of other parties, in South and Central Kashmir, political parties clearly failed in enthusing the voters. As the results come out, the vote share of PDP might explain this trend better.
In the 2019 election most of the strongholds of PDP recorded very low polling which indicates a shift of public mood from soft separatism to a more hardline separatist position.
“Sher Aya, Sher Aya!”
(the lion has arrived) has now turned into an overriding slogan in Kashmir valley. In the southern parts of Kashmir it is widely used in funerals of militants where in the mindset of the citizens a militant is a lion. Ironically, the same slogan ringed loud and bold in the elections campaign of almost all candidates. Such is the paradoxical nature of public sentiment in Kashmir valley. Perhaps, pulling the people away from radical to democratic politics is the going to be quite challenging for many years to come.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.