Low voter turn out in J&K polls an indicator of people losing faith in democratic institutions of India?

Unlike earlier occasions, there were no boycott calls from insurgent groups or off-stream leaders in the lead-up to the elections

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Gulzar Bhat

On Monday, in the streets of Shopian district's Kaprin village, a few canines were yapping spasmodically. The road leading to the polling station remained deserted almost throughout the day. After 10 am, a few voters showed up at the polling booth and cast their ballots. As people largely remained cooped up inside their homes, the voter turnout in the entire Kaprin block turned out to be significantly low.

An official said that the poll percentage in an area where a women-only District Development Council (DDC) seat was up for grabs stood at 1.96 percent.

"We steered clear of polling stations for some reason and that is all I can tell you," said a middle aged man in Kaprin. The seat went to polls during the 4th leg of the DDC polls. The by-elections for panchayat seats are also being conducted simultaneously.

Sheikh Mohammad Rafi, a National Conference leader from Kachoodra village and former lawmaker, says that people have lost their faith in the democratic institutions of India after August 5, 2019 when New Delhi put paid to the special position of Jammu and Kashmir. He sees it, inter alia, as one of the key reasons for the scant poll percentage recorded in the polls.

Rafi's father Shiekh Mohammad Mansoor, a well-heeled apple orchardist, was a senior National Conference leader and the area had sent him to the Assembly multiple times. In the early nineties, he was shot dead by local militants like many other political leaders. For Rafi, his father was killed merely for siding with a democratic state. "And the same state betrayed us," he said.

Although Rafi is confident that his candidate will vanquish her opponent, the scant poll percentage resembled the trend of past elections held in the area. During the 2018 general elections, the voter turnout in the area did not cross 4 percent.

The district, like other parts of southern Kashmir, has been deeply affected by the protracted conflict. The frequent boycott calls by both militants and separatist leaders made voters steer clear of the polling booths during the past several elections.

However, the polls this time around are different from the successive elections for a host of reasons. There have not been any boycott calls from insurgent groups or off-stream leaders in the lead-up to the elections. Apart from two national Left parties, all the regional mainline political parties have come together to contest the elections under the banner of People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration( PAGD). The poll promises too are rather different.

The PAGD candidates during their canvassing appealed to people to cast their ballots for the restoration of their lost identity.

On November 24, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah made a fervent appeal to the people of Jammu and Kashmir to vote for the PAGD candidates via a video message. He said that the alliance was made to defend the identity of the people and restore the lost status of the Himalayan region.

Similarly, Mehbooba Mufti, another former Chief Minister and a principal ally of PAGD, also exhorted upon the people to vote for safeguarding their identity.

Both the candidates and voters in the Valley believe that the poll results will set the future political course for J&K, while the electoral win of PAGD could be billed as a mandate against the Modi government's radical August 5 move.

"These elections are not for good roads or seamless electricity. We are voting just to send out a message to New Delhi that the people of J&K never made peace with the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A," said Aijaz Ahmad, a voter from Kund village of Kulgam district which went to polls during the third leg of polling on December 4.

The graph of voter turnout, at least in the last three phases, has been constantly falling, which might be a major cause of concern for the PAGD.

While during the first phase of polling a voter turnout of 39.11 percent was recorded, the second phase saw a poll percentage of 33.34 percent in the Valley.

During the third and fourth leg of the elections, the poll percentage in Kashmir stood at 31.61 percent and 31.9 percent respectively.

While Rafi sees the falling poll percentage as loss of people's faith in electoral exercise, a PDP contestant, who declined to be named, alleges that people are being barred from voting by design.

"BJP prevented our leaders from canvassing. It even jailed our leaders and now when it is sensing its defeat, it tries to bar people from voting," he alleged.

It may be recalled that the National Investigation Agency( NIA) on November 25 arrested PDP youth leader and DDC contender Waheed Parra for alleged links with a militant who was arrested with a suspended J&K police officer and Hizbul Mujahidin militant commander Naveed Babu earlier this year.

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