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.