DDCs, Gupkar Alliance and Apni Party: The latest façade of electoral democracy in Kashmir

A voting agent work as Indian security forces stand alert outside a voting booth during the third phase of the District Development Council elections in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, on 4 December 2020. Delhi has always 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 prevailing dissent. Muzamil Mattoo / NurPhoto / Getty Images
23 March, 2021

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.

In this demand for restoration, the PAGD represents itself as the voice of the Kashmiri people, and protectors of what was snatched from Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019. This ideology, the PAGD would have Kashmiris believe, brought together an alliance of bitter political opponents. Conveniently, they do not talk of the erosion of autonomy or the dilution of the provisions over the decades that the National Conference and PDP enjoyed power. The underlying truth is that the alliance did not offer equal influence or space to all its partners or make any earnest effort to stop the political skulduggery of the Indian government. For instance, the National Conference not only contested the vast majority of seats, it also fielded proxy and independent candidates in violation of internal seat-sharing arrangements. The National Conference was not alone on this front—the PDP and the People’s Conference did the same, revealing the prevailing distrust with the PAGD.

As a result, the alliance that was created was one that struggled to survive in the face of political uncertainty. Predictably, the cracks within the alliance and the fragility of its unity, which was on display from the beginning, have already led to a split. On 19 January, the People’s Conference president, Sajad Lone, wrote to the PAGD president and National Conference chairperson, Farooq Abdullah, to withdraw his party’s support to the alliance. “We fought against each other in Kashmir province not against the perpetrators of August 5,” Lone wrote. “And those who perpetrated August 5 and their minions are now vocally gleeful.”

The American political scientist Harold Laswell once defined politics as “who gets what, when, and how.” The PAGD had the potential to redefine Laswell’s definition when they came together with a promise to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, in terms that would not be governed by self-interest. But it is now too late for the alliance leaders to review their position and work on this unfilled promise of autonomy one that they have made to the people of Jammu and Kashmir several times over the decades.

Meanwhile, Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party—a name that itself sounds alien to Kashmir politics—has given up on the restoration of Article 370. In fact, the former businessman and PDP member insists that it is no longer an issue for the “common Kashmiri.” According to Bukhari, the PAGD and its leaders formed an “unprincipled and an opportunistic alliance,” and are “hoodwinking” the Kashmiri public with the impossible promise of restoring Article 370. The Apni Party, Bukhari said, is focusing on the issues of development that actually concern the electorate. Pertinently, following abrogation, Ram Madhav, BJP’s Kashmir in-charge at the time, repeatedly said that parties should start political activity, and called for a new leadership that would focus on development. It is on this platform of development that Bukhari now claims to alone represent the public’s interest in Jammu and Kashmir’s politics.

Perhaps nothing reflects the BJP’s success in controlling Jammu and Kashmir’s politics, even post-abrogation, better than the number of National Conference and PDP members who have joined the Apni Party. This includes old shills for Delhi such as the former PDP leaders Dilawar Mir and Rafi Mir, and the former Congress leaders like Usman Majeed and Shoaib Lone. This success is not difficult to understand, given that Kashmir’s history has shown that its pro-India parties have repeatedly toed the Indian government’s line in pursuit of their own political interests. Tapping into this sentiment, Bukhari’s Apni Party offers disgruntled PAGD members and independents an opportunity to join him and get political recognition if they prove their loyalty to the new political realities created by the Indian state.

Indeed, the DDC is nothing short of history repeating itself. In 1953, after the Congress Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru threw the National Conference’s Sheikh Abdullah in jail on suspicion of advocating independence for Kashmir, he appointed GM Bakshi as Abdullah’s successor. With the National Conference as its puppet administration, the Congress government at the centre began the process of dismantling Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy. The constitutional scholar AG Noorani has written in his book, Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, that in the two decades that Abdullah was held in custody, the Indian government intervened and eroded the very foundation of the provision.

When Abdullah was released, in 1975, he approached Indira Gandhi to restore Kashmir to its earlier position; but she famously told him that “the clock cannot be turned back.” Abdullah accepted this new reality and returned to Jammu and Kashmir as the chief minister of a Congress-led government. In maintaining that the restoration of Article 370 is impossible, Bukhari echoes Gandhi’s words.

In the present times, Kashmiris understand that it is delusional to believe that the PAGD or the Apni Party could be Kashmir’s saviours. The politics in the region has been in a state of chaos since the effective abrogation of Article 370, marked by strings being pulled by the centre in Delhi and Kashmir’s leaders resigning from their respective parties to join rivals or create their own factions. Their track record is enough to understand the political reality that what we are now witnessing—after the constitutional changes of 2019—is a do-or-die battle between the different ideologies. For instance, Sheikh Abdullah’s political ideology deemed it necessary to sign the Instrument of Accession and demand a plebiscite to establish Kashmir’s autonomy, while his contemporary politician Mohiuddin Karra’s ideology sought to keep a check on the pro-India narrative in Kashmir. Simultaneously, there have been many ideologies that have been bolstered by the government in Delhi.

Sheikhism, or his ideology, which some argue was the more politically pertinent ideology, has gradually fizzled out. The same will be the case with Gupkarism—mere slogans of autonomy, fervent diplomatic speeches, press statements, and interviews will never suffice. Meanwhile, Bukhari’s Apni Party will take years to build credibility, and even if he succeeds, its legitimacy will be more questionable than the previous PDP and National Conference regimes that relied on the overt or covert support of Delhi. Ultimately, their ideological posturing will fade away in the haze of political uncertainties. The PAGD and Apni Party may both witness many followers, but what ultimately matters is which regional actor serves Delhi better.

Meanwhile, the centre will try to use the DDC elections to present a picture of normalcy in Kashmir. On 18 March, barely days after a three-day gunfight between militants and security forces in Shopian district, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed in parliament that violence had reduced in Kashmir. Ultimately, irrespective of who leads and forms the District Councils and occupies the government offices, Kashmir will continue to suffer under the Indian state’s nepotism and mediocrity. The corollary, of course, is that the crisis of legitimacy will continue to prevail in Kashmir. If Delhi believes that the political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir would fizzle away, it would be nothing short of political naivety.