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Civic polls: J&K

Civic polls: J&K

The much-awaited civic polls in Jammu & Kashmir, which kicked off on February 8, saw a very poor voter turnout in the Kashmir valley. However, the Jammu region and Kargil recorded above 70 per cent voter turnout. The four-phase urban local body polls in the troubled state are being held after 13 years. The decision to hold these elections was made immediately after the appointment of the new Governor Satya Pal Malik. Unlike the previous Governors who were mainly from the military or the bureaucracy, the new J&K Governor has been a full-time politician. The appointment of a politician as the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir had signalled a change in the government's approach. The change is that the government now wants to revive the political process on a serious note starting from the local body level. Another important change in the government's approach is that it does not consider Jammu & Kashmir as a serious security concern, the reason why retired generals and bureaucrats were appointed as Governors of the state in last 30 years.

The huge difference in the voter turnout in the Kashmir valley and the Jammu region clearly shows that the voters are divided along the geographical regions of the state. For the Jammu region, the elections are a rare opportunity in the troubled state to reconstitute and reinvigorate the local bodies across the state. This would not only bring in fresh dynamism in the development works at the grassroots level but also provide a breather from the decades' long militancy problem. There are three distinct geographical regions in Jammu & Kashmir -- Jammu, Kashmir valley, and Ladakh. Militancy is mainly concentrated in the Kashmir valley while the other two regions are largely peaceful. Rather, the Jammu region has seen a spillover effect of the insurgency that has gripped the Kashmir valley and the people in the Jammu region are angry over it. This explains the low voting percentage in the Kashmir valley and a remarkably high one in the Jammu region. The areas hit by insurgency have seen fewer voters coming out of their homes to cast their votes while the areas which oppose militancy have seen a better voter turnout. Militancy faced by Jammu & Kashmir has its roots in the secessionist demand by a section of the political class supported by Pakistan, sends armed militants into Kashmir to destabilise India. As this is largely a security issue, the Indian government has deployed a large number of security forces in the state and they have done a commendable job in ensuring normalcy and law and order in the state. Even for holding the ongoing civic body polls, the security forces including the state police have deployed a large number of personnel to ensure a peaceful election.

The Centre's decision to appoint a new Governor who announced the civic polls right at the outset was to give the democratic process a chance to change the political scenario in the state. Earlier, the PDP-BJP government failed miserably to continue as a united force and collapsed after BJP pulled out of the alliance in June this year. BJP had said that the problems like terrorism, violence, and radicalisation had risen during the Mehbooba Mufti's tenure and that staying in the alliance was untenable. After securing the second position in the state Assembly by winning 25 seats in the last state election in 2014, BJP came to power in the state in alliance with PDP, the single largest party with 28 seats. According to political analysts, BJP withdrew from the Mufti government as there were fundamental differences between the two parties on key issues such as terrorism. The Mufti government had taken some confidence-building measures such as amnesty to first-time stone pelters and was in the process to mollify the hardliners and the militants. But these initiatives were not bearing results while violence and terrorism were rising. At this juncture, Mufti suggested holding talks with Pakistan in order to solve the problem of militancy and violence in the state. That was the last straw and BJP was ready with its own vision for the state. Speculations were rife that some PDP MLAs were in touch with BJP, which was eying to make its own government in the state.

Two major political parties, People's Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference have boycotted the ongoing civic body polls. In their absence, the contest is mainly between BJP and Congress. Both PDP and NC have their stronghold in the Kashmir valley, where the voting percentage in the first phase of the election has been extremely low. Apart from the boycott call given by the two regional parties, militant groups have also warned the voters and the candidates to stay away from the elections. However, the civic polls are expected to mark a fresh beginning in the state in which BJP will rule the roost.

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