In less than four weeks’ time, millions living in what is sometimes described as the most dangerous place on earth will make their way to polling stations stretching from the shadows of Siachen to the sun-baked plains of Samba. More than a few voices had called for deferring the elections until next summer, fearing that the still-raw wounds of the violence Jammu and Kashmir saw this summer could lead to a poor voter turnout and a verdict polarised along communal lines. Others were worried that terrorist violence, or an anti-election campaign by secessionists, could lead to more bloodshed. All these concerns are legitimate. But by ordering that elections to the State Legislative Assembly be held in time to avoid the imposition of central rule, the Election Commission of India has made a courageous and principled decision that places at centre stage the right of the people to shape their own future.
Without doubt, the poll process will face many severe challenges before the seven-phase election is completed in December. But the fact that fear has not been allowed to derail democracy is something of a triumph in itself. For decades, elections in Jammu and Kashmir were used as instruments of some cause: to bring a particular party to power, for example, or for demonstrating the legitimacy of the State’s accession to India. Ever since 1996, when democracy returned to the State after an extended breakdown brought about by jihadist violence, elections have been cast as a tool for peacemaking. The ECI’s decision underlines the fact that while elections may indeed yield desirable outcomes, this is not their raison d’étre. By making clear that democracy is not contingent on circumstance or result, the ECI has helped the healing of the dysfunctions that came to characterise J&K’s political life because of the decades-old subversion of democracy. The elections will, moreover, make clear to political parties in Jammu and Kashmir that they — not New Delhi or for that matter Islamabad — are the principal architects of the State’s destiny. Over the summer, the Congress-People’s Democratic Party alliance government paid the price for the two partners’ political opportunism and failure to challenge the forces of religious and ethnic chauvinism. Now, the people of the State will have the opportunity to assess that record and decide who might have the best vision for the future. In 1996 and 2002, terrorist violence claimed the lives of almost 200 political workers from most major parties, who put their lives on the line to campaign for their beliefs. Ensuring that there will be an elected government in Jammu and Kashmir before the New Year is a fitting tribute to that sacrifice.