Originally Published 2018-07-17 05:21:58 Published on Jul 17, 2018
It goes without saying that Kashmir’s political candidates do not bear primary responsibility for this electoral legitimacy crisis.
What about low voter turnout in Lok Sabha elections in the Valley?

Next year’s general election will remind us once more that India is capable of impressive logistical feats. But as the world’s largest electorate reconstitutes the Lok Sabha, a less laudable fact will also be hard to ignore: in parts of the Kashmir Valley, parliamentary elections are little more than a five-yearly farce.

Of the more than 3,800 Assembly segments across India where polling was held in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the 30 Assembly segments with the lowest turnout were all located in the Valley. Unable to mobilise electoral support, the Valley’s three elected representatives entered Parliament lacking any sense of legitimacy. While the average member of India’s 16th Lok Sabha had the support of 31 per cent of his or her constituents, Mehbooba Mufti of Anantnag and Muzaffar Hussain Baig of Baramulla were only backed by 15 per cent of their respective electorates while Tariq Hameed Karra represented Srinagar with only 13 per cent of the constituency’s registered voters behind him.

It goes without saying that Kashmir’s political candidates do not bear primary responsibility for this electoral legitimacy crisis. Kashmiri electors will largely remain unenthusiastic about general elections unless Delhi fundamentally recalibrates its troubled relationship with Srinagar. Short of any drastic institutional adjustments, however, the Valley’s political players have two options to at least marginally increase their legitimacy.

The first option involves the shaping of preferences.

It recognises that mainstream Kashmiri politicians cannot expand their electoral catchment area without improving their palatability within the separatist space. Valley-based politicians could conceivably discredit the separatist leadership by reminding constituents that the costs of relentlessly pursuing unachievable political objectives are borne by the ordinary individual.

But the mere acknowledgment that separatists are selling a pipe dream will not compel electors to visit the booth. Valley politicians will also have to erect a compelling narrative of their own towards which preferences can be shaped. On what basis, for instance, will they sway Kashmiris to enthusiastically contribute to the formation of a central government that has for decades been perceived as alien, antagonistic, and oppressive? And how will they persuade constituents that there is any functional value in choosing three lonely and invariably muffled representatives in a boisterous gathering of 543 members?

The second option available to legitimacy-seeking candidates involves the much easier task of accommodating established preferences.

The logic here is simple: if you can’t discredit the separatist, adopt his rhetoric and try to lure traditional non-voters by telling them what they want to hear.

This is exactly what Farooq Abdullah did in the run-up to Srinagar’s 2017 by-election, when he spoke empathetically about stone pelters and also sought to ingratiate himself with the Jamaat-e-Islami. But politicians will be loath to rely excessively on this approach. Candidates resorting to separatist speak can easily run afoul of India’s sedition laws. Moreover, the benefits of the tactic may not always justify its costs. Indeed, few turned up to vote in Srinagar despite the senior Abdullah’s efforts to step out of character.

Any modestly successful project to increase turnout in traditionally non-voting parts of the Valley will inevitably require a sustained mix of preference shaping and preference accommodating tendencies.

But power-seeking Kashmiri politicians are not in the business of doing what is sensible in the long term. Despite their awareness that chronic non-participation of millions of electors seriously damages their legitimacy, the political candidates simply do not have incentives to change tack. They know all too well that the lack of legitimacy characterising their candidacy applies uniformly to all mainstream politicians.

If Mehbooba Mufti won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat in 2014 with less than five per cent of her support coming from the boycott-prone areas of Tral, Pulwama, and Pampore (which together account for nearly a fifth of the constituency’s registered voters), so did Mirza Mehboob Beg of the National Conference (NC) in 2009.

If Muzaffar Hussain Baig of the People’s Democratic Party won the Baramulla seat in 2014 with only 535 of Sopore’s more than 100,000 electors supporting him, the apple town was also unenthusiastic about the NC candidate who took the constituency five years earlier.

And if Tariq Hameed Karra won the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat in 2014 drawing less than a quarter of his votes from the eight boycott-prone Assembly segments in Srinagar district (where more than half of the constituency’s registered voters reside), support for a legitimacy-starved Farooq Abdullah in 2009 was similarly concentrated in less populous parts of the constituency. Clearly, candidates have little reason to exhaust time and resources on stubborn non-voters who are also seen to be out of reach for political rivals.

That the Valley’s next three representatives will secure power despite embarrassingly and (to some degree) avoidably low turnout is all but guaranteed.


But what’s also certain is that any initial discomfort associated with their lack of legitimacy will promptly sink into the cosiness of a parliamentary seat. And why fix a problem that can be enjoyed?

This commentary originally appeared in DailyO.

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Diane Coyle

Diane Coyle

Diane Coyle Bennett Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy University of Cambridge

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