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Panchayat polls in J&K

Panchayat polls in J&K

Following the appointment of a new Governor in Jammu & Kashmir, the political process, which had come to a standstill after the fall of the PDP-BJP government, is once again being revived by holding the urban local body and panchayat elections in the state. The appointment of a full-time politician as the Governor at a time when the state is under the Governor's rule is a political move on the part of the Centre that can provide fresh dynamism to the otherwise listless political environment in the state. The elections to municipal bodies will be conducted in four phases between October 1 and October 5, 2018, whereas elections to panchayats will be conducted in eight phases between November 8 and December 4, 2018. The panchayat elections have not been held in the state since 2011. After pulling out of the PDP-BJP government led by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, BJP is now set to rule the state and create a favourable environment for the party through the Governor. The local body election is part of the process to involve people at the grassroots level in the political process. However, the regional parties like National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are wary of the move as they fear that BJP can dominate the local bodies through these elections. NC on Wednesday has warned that it would not participate in the local body election unless the Centre and state governments make their stand clear on Article 35A. NC president and former CM Farooq Abdullah said that his party will fight tooth and nail for any move to take away the special rights of the citizens. Article 35A provides for special rights to the permanent residents of the state that guarantees that the ownership of land in the state will remain with only Kashmiri people. The Supreme Court was hearing a bunch of petitions on the Constitutional validity of Article 35A. The Apex Court has deferred the hearing to January next year in view of the local body elections in the state. The state government had requested the SC to defer the hearing as it may create a law and order problem at a time when security personnel are required in large numbers to ensure a peaceful election. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case after the local body elections are over.

Abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35 A have long been on BJP's agenda but the party has not taken any initiative to repeal these constitutional provisions fearing a backlash from the opposition and local residents in Jammu & Kashmir. Now that the Constitutional validity of Article 35A has been questioned in the Supreme Court, political parties fear that this provision that accords special status to the state may be struck down. The locals in the valley have already organised protests against the SC hearing the case. They want that in case the SC strikes down Article 35A, the Central and state governments should guarantee that they will enact new laws overriding the SC verdict. Otherwise, they will side with the agitating masses and boycott the political process, starting with the local body elections. Being regional parties, NC and PDP have no option but to represent the local people and their issues. If the majority of the people in the state think that Article 370 and Article 35A should stay, the regional parties have little option but to support the people and their demands. But BJP which is guided by its own agenda and ambition to form the government in the state may not have sympathies for parties who want the controversial Constitutional provisions to stay in force.

Despite countless peace initiatives, the situation in Kashmir has not improved and locals are still joining militant ranks. There exists a section of the political class that demands secession of the state from India. The regional parties who have been in power in the state have little influence over these elements. On the contrary, these parties often work as the conduit between the troublemakers and the Centre. It is for the first times in many decades that the Centre wants to fight the adverse ground realities with political initiatives and an agenda of development. The upcoming local body and panchayat elections will provide the much-needed dynamism at the panchayat and municipal corporation levels that can further provide impetus to local level development activities. As regards the SC hearing on Article 35A, it is an interesting case as the Act has it been enacted through a Bill in Parliament. Still, it has been in force for so many decades. Naturally, the time has come when the special status granted to J&K should be debated and see if it is required any more.

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