Nobody, even seniormost legislators, knows precisely when members of the Panchayati Raj institutions held their last representation in the House of Elders in Jammu and Kashmir last time. J&K Legislative Council (JKLC) Secretary Mohammad Ashraf Mir appears to be the only man of knowledge — by virtue of being the custodian of archives.
“It was in 1980,” says Mr. Mir, correcting the conflicting replies of a dozen of officials and plus-60 sitting and retired legislators, “that the panchs and sarpanchs had filled up the four vacancies.” He told The Hindu that the panchayat elections were held during Sheikh Abdullah’s period as Chief Minister in 1978. Two years later, the elected panchs and sarpanchs exercised their franchise — albeit by raising their hand — to elect four of their representatives.
The bicameral J&K Legislature has 36 seats in the Upper House —four reserved for representatives of panchayat members and two for urban local bodies. As the Governor is competent to nominate eight members — five from academicians, intellectuals and social activists — members of the 87-member Lower House choose the remaining 22 members of Legislative Council by voting.
From 1978 to 2011, panchayat elections were held only once — by the Farooq Abdullah’s government in 2001-02. With poor voter turnout and less than 30 per cent of members getting elected in the Valley — in contrast to Jammu and Ladakh — the Mufti Sayeed government scrapped it summarily by way of legislation next year.
Now, in Monday’s State-wide polling, in which 33,540 panchs and sarpanchs are exercising their right to vote, the JKLC will be filling up the four vacancies after a long spell of 32 years. Be that the National Conference’s Dr. Shehnaz Ganai, who has a Masters in Hospital Administration, or the Congress’ lawyer-politician, Ghulam Nabi Monga, most of the contestants are well-educated and, more significantly, conscious of the value of PRIs in empowerment of the ordinary voter and transformation of the Indian body politic.
Like the NC, the Congress and the NPP, the principal opposition party, the PDP, has fielded its candidates for all four seats, two each in Kashmir and Jammu. They include freshers like Yasir Rishi as well as seasoned politicians like the retired rural development official and former Minister, Pir Mohammad Hussain. Even the two loosely organised unions of the sarpanchs and panchs, independent MLA Engineer Rasheed and separatist-turned-mainstream politician, Sajjad Lone, have independently fielded their candidates.
With 44 candidates in the fray for the four seats — 28 in Jammu and 16 in the Valley — over 33,500 electors will be casting their votes at 155 polling stations in equal number of community development blocks.
Authorities have apprehensions of sabotage despite enthusiasm among the voters and the contestants. Hizbul Mujahideen chief and Pakistan-based guerrilla conglomerate United Jehad Council chairman Sallah-ud-din has lately issued a ‘clarification’ but the impact of his threatening statement last month does not seem to have faded out. Nevertheless, extensive campaigning by the parties and the candidates has, to a large extent, dominated the scene in favour the participants and organisers of this election.
“We have taken all precautionary measures to ensure that everything goes on smoothly,” Principal Secretary (Home) Brij Raj Sharma told The Hindu. He pointed out that the elections were being held only at the more secure block headquarters and not in far-flung villages. Besides, he said, militants had not issued their threat for the first time. “It’s a routine since 1996, but still we have put in place extraordinary security arrangements.” He said that out of 145 polling stations, the government had declared 57 as ‘Sensitive’ and 42 as ‘Hypersensitive’.
These elections have, in fact, reduced the usually dominant space of separatists and militants from the streets in Baramulla to the newspapers in Srinagar. News coverage and paid advertisements have almost fully eclipsed the Hurriyat and its forthcoming visit to Pakistan. On the other hand, Valley-centric PDP has utilised a good opportunity to assert and expand its presence in Jammu.
And the coalition, that stood marred by overhanging mistrust between its partners, has also proved to be an incidental beneficiary. For the first time since their tie-up in 2009, NC and Congress leaders are swearing by the alliance and addressing the rallies jointly. Observers insist that after the naked militant threat, a section of panchs was turning to the parties aggressively opposing the gun culture.
The Chief Minister’s indication of rewarding the high performance MLAs and Ministers, in an imminent Cabinet reshuffle, commitment of fixing monthly stipend to panchayat members and a vertical split in the BJP are obviously boosting prospects of the coalition’s candidates.