Sitting on a volcano in J&K: Reloading political matrix will not be easy

The Narendra Modi government has clearly discarded the option of seeking rapprochement with the political elite of Jammu & Kashmir. It wants to create a new class of political actors in the state. In favour of its new political strategy it offers the argument that democracy had degenerated into a system controlled by a corrupt and self-perpetuating political elite. It promises to revive it from the grassroots by encouraging elected village representatives to occupy the political vacuum left by the marginalisation of existing political dynasties. 

By presenting its decision as a much-needed act of political engineering, the government will try to gather legitimacy for Prime Minister Modi's unilateral breaking of the Indian state's democratic commitment to the people of J&K. These arguments in the name of national interest, development and democracy have managed to pass muster in Parliament but it is yet to pass the peoples' test.

Surely PM Modi knows he is sitting on a volcano in J&K. His government is likely to face a crisis of legitimacy once curfew is lifted in the Kashmir Valley. The quest for peace and stability in J&K could then be painful and prolonged.

The government's political narrative of trying to create a grassroots democracy through panchayat leadership has an uncanny resemblance with Ayub Khan's plan of 'basic democracy' introduced during Martial Law. Stressing democracy's foundations in villages and in the countryside, Ayub Khan proposed that people would elect candidates who are local and known to them. They along with state bureaucrats would take an active part in administration and serve as integral elements of developmental projects. Replicating this scheme would create a system that could be closely controlled by Delhi. Hence the Union Territory status.

The various initiatives and pronouncements of the government make sense only when located in this narrative. For example, the J&K administration has launched a 'Back to Village' project while Union Home Minister Amit Shah in his speech in Parliament emphasised that there was a 74 per cent voting turnout in the panchayat elections, offering it as proof of a resounding popular mandate. Even PM Modi made it a point to stress the importance of the foundations of democracy in the villages of J&K in his address to the nation on August 8. He was full of praise for the panchayat representatives. No doubt they would be projected as having impeccable democratic credentials.

However, the claim that they enjoy a 'popular mandate' is specious. The turnout counts voting in only those wards where polling was held. It hides the fact that polling was not held in large parts of the Kashmir Valley. Of the 2,135 halqas in the Valley, (a group of villages, each comprising a ward headed by a Panch; a halqa is headed by a Sarpanch), no candidate stood for election in 708, meaning that 30 per cent of the halqas did not see any polling at all. Further there was no contest in 699, with a solitary candidate winning unopposed.

Overall, of the 17,059 total panch wards in the Valley, only 1,656 saw a contest and nearly 64 per cent had no candidates. In 4,537 panch-wards, the sole candidate contesting was elected unopposed. In the four South Kashmir districts of Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama, the electoral picture was dismal, as only 95 of the 5,847 panch-wards saw any polling. There was no polling in Shopian and Pulwama. In Kulgam there was no polling in 99 per cent halqas and no candidate for 87 per cent of its Sarpanch posts. In Anantnag there was a contest in 76 per cent of the halqas. To even contemplate a "grassroots democracy" is clearly meaningless in these districts that are the epicentre of militancy.

All in all, the pool of village body chiefs is neither representative nor the result of a popular mandate.

Why then is it being projected with so much enthusiasm? There is a fond hope that panchayats will in the longer term turn out to be the nurseries for state level politicians. Today's Panch and Sarpanch would be the legislators of tomorrow, rejuvenating political processes. A leadership would emerge counter to the urban, educated and vocal elite with whom the Modi government found no meeting ground. In such a way that the Modi government and its policies in J&K would be legitimised.

For this scenario to emerge, the legitimacy of the existing political elite must be destroyed. It follows therefore that the present crop of politicians should be discredited as practising dynastic politics. With their marginalisation the political mobilisation and mass protests that only parties can organise will become impossible. Any new leadership from below will lack the means and confidence to organise any sort of resistance. It is likely to be less vocal, less demanding and much more amenable to control from Delhi.

Since the new political elite will be from the predominantly rural hinterland, it is likely to be less politically conscious than its urban counterpart. It will probably be also bereft of any well-defined ideological perspective nor will it carry the burden of knowledge of the history of accession of J&K to India. Lacking political training, its interventions on social, political and economic issues are likely to lack conviction and depth. Its low potential for political articulation will also come in the way of effective mass mobilisation.

Will this plan work? Not unless people give it a resounding mandate. It was never a people's demand and public support is now likely to be even more difficult to mobilise in J&K than earlier. It is a safe prediction that the new version of basic democracy is unlikely to work in the Kashmir Valley at least.

Kashmir's media and civil society are either too critical or too wary of this government to be the agents of this transformation. The cultural and legal war against both is likely to be continued by the Modi government. Its xenophobic majoritarian ideology will not be able to provide a narrative to win popular support in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Despite tall claims then, Prime Minister Modi's initiative in J&K could end up giving Indian democracy a bad name.

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