In Depth

In Kashmir, ‘apolitical’ Panchayat Polls have sparked a political slugfest

Representative Image [Photo Courtesy: Indian Express/Shuaib Masoodi].

What was supposed to be an ‘apolitical’ affair has become a competing political turf war for local unionist camp in Kashmir. The overt-covert political campaign has already defeated the purpose of Panchayat polls which New Delhi introduced as “grass-root democracy” in the valley. 

In one of the government allotted rooms in Srinagar, the Bhartiya Janta Party’s “go-to” man, sitting on a wooden chair with one leg crossed over the other, had his eyes glued straight to a 32-inch LED screening a Bollywood hit. So engrossed, that a glass tipoi – which had been turned into a dining table, occupied with a platter sectioned with fried fish and french-fries, accompanied by a soft drink – was getting no attention.

After about good two-three minutes, he finally acknowledged my presence. Dropping down the TV volume as a courtesy, he then asked me to introduce myself. But this man, however, needed no introduction. I was beforehand told by his “close aide” that “sir” is the BJP’s Member of Legislative Council (MLC), Surinder Ambardar, who also happens to be a Kashmiri Pandit.

In our 15-minute conversation that followed, he spoke J-K’s current political scenario. The comments seemed so insightful, that I almost forgot what had I come for – to ask about the BJP’s involvement in the on-going Panchayat elections.

While I wanted to carry on, he cut-short the conversation and signalled: “Alright then, it was nice meeting you.” This came to me as an indication that I cannot continue more and the busy man wants to recommence the half-left Bollywood movie, which had remained paused throughout the conversation.

With time running short, quickly, I tossed in my question: “On an estimate, how many BJP-affiliated candidates are contesting in the on-going Panchayat elections?”

The panchayat polls, that are supposed to be “non-political”, has sparked a political slugfest with the active participation of the workers of several political parties like the Congress, BJP, and the regional National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Before revealing the estimated number of participants from the BJP’s end, the MLC, first clarified: “Panchayat polls are apolitical. We have only allowed our members to play the dual role of also independently contesting in the elections.”

“I guess we have around 500-700 candidates contesting for the role of sarpanch; while for the panch, I think the numbers should be around 3,000 to 4,000?” he asked, turning his head towards his “associate” standing next to him, who, in reply, nodded in agreement with a smirk. He is Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi, BJP’s Convenor from north Kashmir’s Baramulla, the same district from where Sofi won unopposed as a panch.

Surinder Ambardar, BJP MLC, (Second from the left) with Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi (far right).

His wife, Mymoona Begum, who also is affiliated with the party, has won uncontested as a sarpanch from the same area – Kreeri Block.

Sofi, who joined hands with the BJP in 2014 after having worked with the NC for several years, claims to have single handedly encouraged more than 400 locals from across the Kashmir valley to join the party and contest as “independent candidates”. And additionally being the Baramulla district convenor, Sofi has been the “main man” for his party from across the northern belt.

“The local polls serve as an excellent opportunity to strengthen the party’s base,” believes Sofi, adding: “And that is why I was best motivated to put forward as many workers I possibly can.”

But, it is not just the BJP, similar is the story of the Congress’ senior Vice President from Central Kashmir’s Budgam District, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan. Khan and his wife have won uncontested as sarpanch and panch respectively from Beerwah block, which falls in the same district Khan is in charge of.

Khan has been loyal to the party since joining in 1994, while his wife, Saleema Akhtar also entered Congress in 2001 post their marriage.

“About 4,000 candidates affiliated with the Congress are contesting in the elections from all across Kashmir valley,” Khan remarked. Breaking down the figure, he further said: “About 200 from the south, 1,000 from north and 800 from the central. But particularly from Ganderbal and Bandipora, we have over 2,000 candidates.”

From his end, however, Khan could only put forward a mere 30 candidates from across the central belt. “But, since joining the Congress, I have encouraged more than 600 locals to join the party,” he said.

The Panchayati Raj Act aims to separate governance on local level from political interference and party politics. On paper, no party symbols and furthering of political agendas, is to be followed. In essence, the Act separates daily governance and political issues.

While the representatives of Congress and BJP openly accept their involvement in the panchayat elections, the NC and PDP, who claim of having “boycotted” the polls, have been working from “behind the curtains”, as per the party insiders.

For instance, from NC, Hilal Rather, son of former Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather, has worked as a “middle-man” for the party from the Budgam district. Furthermore, Abdul Rahim’s sister-in-law, Shakeela, won uncontested from block Nowpora, which falls in the same district Hilal is in-charge of.

From Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, Khursheed Ahmad Rather – one of the party’s prime member and close associate of MLA Sangrama, Syed Basharat Bukhari – has won from Kreeri Block B, Baramulla.

The party insiders further talk about the involvement of PDP’s General Secretary, Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjura. His close associate, Ghulam Mohammad Raina, who had won as a sarpanch during the 2011 panchayat elections, once again emerged victorious from the same area as before.

There is about “80 percent” involvement of political workers in the on-going elections, believes Jammu Kashmir Awami Raj Movement, President, Ghulam Hassan Panzoo. The ‘revelation of sorts’ overpowers the “genuine candidates”.

“It’s a shame,” Panzoo exclaimed. “I had been batting for the panchayat elections to be apolitical right from the beginning, but in the end, the powerful won.”

Particularly coming heavy on the “double standard” of PDP and NC, he remarked: “Were they not going to boycott these local elections? What happened?”

The kind of candidates that all the parties have put forward, hold literally no stand in the society, and a few that do, have their base set in Srinagar and hardly come in their areas, Panzoo continued. 

“How are they going to work sitting far away?” he asked. “No one is serious. Only a mockery is being made of what we call grass-root democracy.”

 

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