Question mark over J&K civic polls looms large after NC boycotts, PDP distances itself from elections

Political parties have threatened to boycott the Assembly and Parliamentary polls in case Centre doesn’t offer a solution on Article 35A, reports RIYAZ WANI

Raising the stakes further for New Delhi in Kashmir, J&K’s major mainstream party National Conference has decided to boycott the upcoming Urban Local Bodies and Panchayat polls Similarly, the PDP has also distanced itself from the exercise — albeit stopping short of announcing a formal boycott. Both parties want the centre to come clean on its stand on Article 35A before they decide to participate.

National Conference has even threatened to boycott the Assembly and parliamentary polls in case centre doesn’t offer an assurance that it won’t tinker with the constitutional provision that bars non-residents from buying immovable property in Kashmir.

“On one hand the centre wants to hold polls here. On the other, they want to revoke Article 35A. Article 370 has been weakened and there are also attacks on the J&K Constitution,” National Conference president D Farooq Abdullah said.

He also took exception to the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s recent statement that a separate constitution for J&K was an “aberration”.

“Their intentions are not right. They never were. The NSA has said that a separate constitution for Jammu and Kashmir is an aberration. I want to tell him from this stage that if the constitution is an aberration, then this accession (of Jammu and Kashmir to India) is also an aberration”.

On the other hand, the PDP president Mehbooba Mufti has also threatened boycott unless New Delhi offers assurance on the protection of Article 35A.

“The present situation is not right for elections, and as long as government does not clear position on 35A and security issues, PDP will not take part in the process. Final call will be taken after government clarifies on the party’s fears,” the PDP said.

The new Governor has already announced the dates for the local polls. The municipal polls will be conducted in four phases and polling will be held between October 1 and 5. Panchayat elections will be held in eight phases between November 8 and December 4.

In the absence of the National Conference and the PDP which between them control more than two-third of the mainstream political space in Valley and also wield a significant political clout in Jammu and Ladakh regions, the local polls are unlikely to be a success. What is more, State Congress president Ghulam Ahamd Mir has expressed doubts about the government’s seriousness about the conduct of polls and sought assessing of the ground situation and taking on board of all the political parties before going ahead with the exercise.

However, the state and central government has so far refused to engage the local parties nor offered any assurance on Article 35A. In the last hearing of the case on August 27, the Attorney General of India K K Venugopal and Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre and Jammu and Kashmir government respectively told the Supreme Court bench that the issue of Article 35A was “very sensitive” and as such hearing be held in January or March 2019 keeping in mind the law and order aspect and the upcoming Urban Local Bodies and Panchayat poll. The matter has now been deferred to January 2019.

Though the decision relaxed the prevailing tense situation in the Valley it hasn’t put the fears to rest. The PDP has expressed serious reservation about the linkage drawn between the Article 35A and the elections. “Linking Article 35A with the polls has further vitiated the atmosphere,” Mehbooba said. “They (the state government and New Delhi) told the court that it (Articl 35A verdict) will have impact on situation in Kashmir. There are now apprehensions in Valley that they may be up to something on Article 35A which may further vitiate atmosphere and that is why hearing has been deferred.

This has created a difficult situation for the governments in the state and New Delhi which cannot make the polls appear credible if the major parties boycott it. At the same time, they cannot offer an assurance on the Article 35A for two important reasons: one, the case is sub-judice and they obviously can claim little influence in how the court deal with it. And second, the BJP cannot lend its voice to defending the constitutional provision for ideological reasons. Sinc its founding the party has been against the special status guaranteed to J&K under Article 370 and has always vociferously pitched for its withdrawal to ensure J&K’s complete integration into Indian Union. However, over the past two years, the BJP has trained its gun specifically on removal of Article 35A. For Sangh groups, it is Article 35A and not Article 370 which comes in the way of settling Indians from other parts of the country in J&K. They believe that the only way to resolve Kashmir issue is through a sweeping demographic change in the state.

And this is why the centre has refused to defend the law in Supreme Court. And under the Governor rule, J&K is perceived to have become similarly slow in its legal defence for the law. This has made a majority of the people of the state paranoid about the protection of Article 35A.

True, the court has deferred the hearing to January 2019, but this hasn’t allayed the apprehensions as to the fate of the law. New Delhi’s silence about the issue has only deepened these suspicions.

“In such an environment if the mainstream parties participate in the polls, we will be seen as facilitating the scrapping of the Article 35A,” said a mainstream leader. “I Supreme Court, the government has sought the deferring of the hearing on the Article to ensure peaceful local polls in the state. This, in a sense, has signalled that it expects the court to deliver an adverse verdict on the issue. We don’t want that to happen”.

However, for the government the prospect of conducting polls has somehow been shored up by the decision of the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference to participate – albeit with a rider: “The elections should be held on nonparty basis and have nothing to do with the politics.”

“We have nothing to do with any kind of politics in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. We are not an institution like assembly to make laws. Our role is only to monitor the development activities in our respective villages,” AJKPC chairman Shafiq Mir said. Incidentally, Mir has also criticized Abdullah’s decision to boycott the local elections. “The Panchayat and ULB elections are restricted to ensuring peoples’ participation at the grass-roots level. It’s absurd to connect party politics to such elections”.

State government has so far silently watched the evolving scenario, so has the central government. The focus of the government right now is on formulating an elaborate security plan to ensure that the contesting candidates are protected. But sooner or later, it will have to respond to the objections of National Conference and the PDP to bring some credibility to the exercise.