Since 1947, Delhi has maintained its sway over Jammu and Kashmir with a two-pronged approach—use of electoral democracy, however fraught, to justify the legitimacy of its rule, and militarisation to crush the growing dissent over the decades. The unilateral abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and the parallel military crackdown on 5 August 2019 was an instance of the latter, and the recently conducted District Development Council (DDC) elections were an extension of the former. Simultaneously, the region has had a long history of parties and leaders being created and installed by the successive Indian governments. As a result, the stage show and falsehoods of the DDC elections—with its drama of proxy candidates contesting against unlikely allies and invariably aiding Delhi’s interests—is all too familiar. As the former chief minister Mir Qasim once said, “Whenever New Delhi felt a leader in Kashmir was getting too big for his shoes, it employed Machiavellian methods to cut him to size.”
The DDC elections are the new face—and façade—of electoral democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. Each of the 20 districts of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir were divided into 14 territorial constituencies, and the winning candidates of each district would then elect a chairperson for the respective DDCs. The elections were contested over eight phases, from 28 November to 22 December 2020, between the Bharatiya Janata Party, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, or PAGD, the Congress, the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, a few other less successful parties and dozens of independents. The PAGD, commonly referred to as the Gupkar Alliance, consisted of seven parties that came together to contest the election on the united platform of restoring the erstwhile state’s constitutional safeguards. The alliance was formed in October 2020 and included the two traditional regional rivals, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. The Apni Party, led by Altaf Bukhari—a former PDP minister and legislator—was formed in March 2020, six months after the central government effectively revoked Article 370 and detained most of Kashmir’s political leaders.
As anticipated, the central government raised much hullabaloo around the elections, even inviting foreign journalists and delegates to the region. However, after the polls, the PAGD hailed the results as a success, after winning 110 of the 280 seats, while the BJP claimed its own victory because it was the single-largest party with 75 seats. The Congress won 26 seats and the Apni Party won 12 seats and independents claimed 50 seats. But as has historically been typical of elections in Kashmir, the reality was not as straightforward as the results tally portrayed. The Jammu and Kashmir administration prevented candidates from campaigning, and central agencies targeted Kashmiri leaders in the run up to the polls. The PAGD faced infighting as member parties nominated independent or proxy candidates. Meanwhile, the Apni Party was widely perceived as a puppet installed by the centre to pretend to be an alternative. The party filled the role of an opposition to the PAGD—just as the PDP was created, in 1999, as a counterweight to the National Conference.
In effect, the grand spectacle of the first elections post-abrogation was as farcical—if not more—as the many elections that have preceded it. Perhaps nothing reflected this more than the very constitution of these district councils as a new system of governance. The councils allowed the mainstream Kashmiri parties, which have historically aligned with the Indian government’s interests, to hold on to a pretence of political power despite the downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status. They allowed former legislators and chief ministers, such as those who came together to form the PAGD, to hold public office and claim to represent the Kashmiri public—in reality, this meant little other than power over municipal issues. As the senior journalist Muzamil Jaleel aptly wrote for Inverse Journal, “In a nutshell, these district councils are part of the larger plan to create a new pro-India political structure in Kashmir that does not indulge in any politics, or even rhetoric.”
If the PAGD had engaged in honest dialogue, about the strategy to challenge the central government, and not just for the purpose of creating a pre-poll alliance, a potential pressure could have been built up. But the parties expectedly failed to create a united front that would be able to apply constructive and meaningful pressure on the BJP at the centre. This failure is because the PAGD is not an alliance united by political opposition to the BJP, but rather, one united by an ideology of political opportunism and survival. The parties that once deployed the rhetoric of autonomy and self-rule were now reduced to demanding the restoration of Article 370 and statehood.