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A Staged Election

by A G Noorani, 15 November 2008

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Dawn, 15 November 2008

A marriage is arranged

THE annals of rigged elections in Kashmir provide no precedent for the polls that will begin there on Nov 17. Even the Unionist parties, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, are opposed to them.

The Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami admitted on Oct 10 that “we have taken a risk”, adding, “If the political parties are not ready, then how can we conduct elections now?”

The right to advocate a boycott of elections is as integral a part of the democratic process as is the right to vote. He conceded that the political parties “can call a boycott” provided they did not use force. This right has been systematically denied by New Delhi through the arrests of leaders like Shabbir Shah, house arrests of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and curfews and arrests of activists to prevent peaceful rallies and processions.

The president of the PDP, Mehbooba Mufti, said on Nov 10: “The polls have been thrust on the people and the PDP.” In the valley, which has 46 of the 87 seats, public opinion is inflamed after the upheaval there and in Jammu in August. “Public meetings cannot be held in the manner they used to. The people are not coming out.”

The NC’s president, Omar Abdullah, said: “The timing is not ideal for elections. We had said this to the Election Commission and in our statements”. Why then did the EC go ahead and why did the NC decide to participate in the polls?

The EC obeyed the wishes of elements in the Government of India who felt that a change was necessary. In 2002 the NC was ditched in favour of the PDP. In 2008 the roles are reversed. Farooq Abdullah, the NC’s patron, did not contest the polls then. He will do so now. But he revealed, on Oct 28, that “Omar will finally take over charge.” The confidence that he will, indeed, become chief minister is a giveaway.

The game plan was revealed on July 9 by A.S. Dulat, a former RAW chief and for long an adviser on Kashmir affairs. “If I have to bet on anybody as the next chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, then I will bet on Omar Abdullah, because only the mainstream parties are going to fight the elections and the National Conference has an edge.”

No wonder the PDP’s president Mehbooba Mufti said on Oct 28 “an impression is being created that New Delhi has decided to select the National Conference for governance”. She added: “We won’t give a free hand to the parties claiming victory in advance”.

The manifestos of the two parties on the state’s governance are revealing. Unprecedentedly Farooq Abdullah has asserted emphatically that the polls concern issues of governance alone. The solution to the Kashmir dispute lies in the dialogue between India and Pakistan, he said, while releasing the NC’s ‘Vision document’ on Oct 31.

The PDP published two documents on Oct 28. An ‘Election manifesto — 2008 make ‘self-rule’ happen’ and ‘Jammu & Kashmir: the self-rule framework for resolution’. The two overlap. The NC had spelled out its views in detail in 1999 in the ‘Report of the state autonomy committee’. As Kashmiri contributions to the debate, the rival documents on autonomy merit analysis later. We are here concerned with their views on governance.

The most striking thing about them is their studied restraint on some issues that vex the people, e.g. discrimination in the services. “No commissioner or secretary in the state government is a Muslim,” The Hindustan Times reported on Aug 17. “There have been only two Muslim DGPs — ever.” Most top police posts are with non-Muslims. Most senior civil servants and police officers are Hindu. Here is an issue on which the PDP and the NC could have gone to town legitimately without compromising their stand on Kashmir’s accession to India. But neither risks annoying New Delhi. The same holds good for torture, release of detainees, withdrawal of the army from prized lands, including orchards, etc.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah consistently wrecked the centre’s moves for a rapprochement with the Hurriyat made by three successive prime ministers as Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed supported them. The PDP seeks to balance support to the Union with espousal of some Kashmiri causes.

The NC’s vision document makes promises on panchayati raj, rehabilitation of militancy affected people, planning, unemployment, power, tourism, agriculture, horticulture, women empowerment, and ‘balanced development’. Its emphasis is on ‘good governance’. Much the same ground is covered in the PDP’s manifesto. Its emphasis is on its ‘governance and development agenda’; but in the context of ‘self-rule’.

Elections are little affected by words alone. Perceptions are decisive. On May 2, 2003 the state’s former deputy chief minister, Muzaffar Hussain Beigh, belonging to the PDP, revealed that he had told the centre’s interlocutor N.N. Vohra that “the Government of India has always been purchasing the leaders of the State. That can be done even today.” A former governor B.K. Nehru noted in his memoirs Nice Guys Finish Second that the CMs “had been nominees of Delhi” who won power “by the holding of farcical and totally rigged elections”.

Today N.N. Vohra is governor. For the Abdullahs it is now or never. Defeat spells oblivion. Yet, victory will earn added disrepute. New Delhi will have to talk the Hurriyat and to Pakistan. The impact on the peace process of this farce can well be imagined.

The writer is a lawyer and an author.