A year after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A from Jammu & Kashmir, democracy is slowly being restored in the Union Territory with the ongoing District Development Council (DDC) elections which is witnessing participation from all national as well as the regional political parties. The successful culmination of the DDC polls will complete the implementation of three-tier Panchayati Raj system in India of grassroots democracy which gives significance to local self-governance. Back in 2018, the two most relevant regional political parties National Conference and People's Democratic Party (PDP) had boycotted the urban body and Panchayat Polls to safeguard 'constitutional provisions' for Jammu & Kashmir.
Last three phases of the DDC polls in the eight-phase election has seen crowds braving biting cold, snowfall as well as the Corona Virus pandemic to exercise their voting right. The threats from Pakistan sponsored terror groups in Kashmir haven't had a major impact to stop the crowds from coming out to the voting centres. A newly formed terror group People's Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF) released a two minute video of killing two security forces personnel in Kashmir on camera mounted on top of an AK-series rifle. The video was released on the day of the first phase of polling in order to instil fear in the larger population amidst brisk voting.
While the first phase of polling saw 51.76% polling, the second phase and the third phase saw 48.62% and 50.53% turnout respectively.
"People have shown an overwhelming response to the polls and we should appreciate their courage and wisdom. The institution of vote has once again won over the ideologies of violence and terror. And I hope it will go a long way to strengthen the grassroots democracy in Jammu & Kashmir that was not allowed to happen till now,'"says, Javaid Trali, C-Founder Jammu & Kashmir Policy Institute (JKPI).
Paradigm shift in Kashmir politics
Interestingly, for the first time J&K is witnessing an unprecedented united People's alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an alliance of NC, PDP, PC and few other political parties against the BJP in the DDC polls. 'Gupkar Declaration' was coined on August 4, 2019 when these political parties met in Srinagar, a day before abrogation of Article 370, and in a joint statement committed themselves to defend as well as safeguard identity, autonomy and special status of Jammu & Kashmir. While PAGD leadership maintains that their vision is the restoration of Article 370 and 35A, many believe that they were forced to contest the DDC polls to avoid facing isolation in the J&K politics.
While Jammu & Kashmir hasn't seen elections since the break-up of PDP-BJP government in 2018, government sources indicate that they are now eager to conduct assembly elections in J&K after the delimitation process is over, which will be the very first since it was granted Union Territory status after the abrogation of Article 370.
"People's alliance for Gupkar Declaration is in many ways a political compulsion and an attempt to revive credibility in the masses for these politicians who haven't seen any support on ground for more than a year," Government sources indicated in New Delhi. "Now that public order has been restored in Kashmir and there are no more Janazaz (Funerals) of killed terrorists, some politicians in Kashmir are desperate to bring out Janaza of a dead Article 370 which will never come back to life," sources added.
Abdullah-Mufti bonhomie in Kashmir however have also raised many eyebrows. Not a single large demonstration or a shutdown was witnessed in the valley in support of the NC or the PDP leadership who were under house detention for over a year. That in itself in many ways signifies the lack of support for them on ground. Junaid Azim Mattu who has been a close aide of Omar Abdullah in the past and represented National Conference on television debates is today also apprehensive about this new grouping.
"I believe the Gupkar Declaration is an amalgamation of the traditional twin-family led mainstream's guilt. It's a glorified mutual ceasefire to salvage some basic relevance amidst widespread disillusionment - so that they don't expose one another," says, Junaid, the second-term Mayor of Srinagar has earlier been a leader of both National Conference and People's Conference.
"I do believe in seeking the restoration of what was snatched from J&K but don't believe the Muftis and Abdullahs have turned into saintly beings overnight who have nothing to be answerable for prior to August 2019. They don't get to exploit this situation as an opportunity for absolution," he further says.
Handing power to common man
The predominant narrative in Jammu & Kashmir seems to be changing from a communication clampdown to restoration of democracy. From the time when political parties incentivised separatism and secessionism in Kashmir this is a welcome change to give clean and honest politics an opportunity to the aam aadmi (common man) to emerge as a leader.
"DDC polls have shown good turnout this year in Jammu & Kashmir. It Is not that people in Kashmir have not voted in the past. They have been doing it for last 70 years. What makes the DDC polls important is the fact that the process is driven by the Aam Aadmi of Kashmir this time. Not the wealthy politicians. And at the end of the day, it's going to help the common people and change the development scenario in the valley. It also shows us how the trust in democracy is intact in people in the Kashmir valley," says Tehmeena Rizvi, Women Rights Activist from Budgam in Central Kashmir.
The politics in Jammu & Kashmir today stands at a cusp of history where Indian democracy, constitution and the laws need to prevail instead of extended status quo, separatism and radicalism which supports bloodshed and hate. While J&K is waiting for the gory cycle of terrorism to end, the masses also want the deceit of political corruption and hypocrisy to be buried forever in the past. Yet for a change to last forever, the government needs to ensure that the terror ecosystem is shattered and a new progressive political discourse for development and opportunities is created for the people who have only witnessed bullets, bombs and barbed wires.