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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

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Why J&K's voter turnout is good news

November 25, 2008

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The voter turnout in Jammu and Kashmir [Images] in the first two phases has belied all expectations. Neither the proponents of elections, certainly not the sceptics, nor the 'risk-taking' Election Commission would have hoped for around 65 percent voter turnout, despite the poll boycott call by militants and freezing temperatures.

It is important to understand that the voters in the valley have neither endorsed Delhi's [Images] line nor have they fallen for the separatists' call for a boycott. Their response to the situation they find themselves in has been much more complex -- and indeed sophisticated. It has also shown once again how out of touch the regional and the mainline parties, and in this case also the separatist groups, are from the public mood.

Firstly, it shows their growing faith in the credibility of the electoral process. People obviously think it is worth their while to line up in long queues in inclement weather because they believe that what they punch into their EVM machines is going to decide who will be the victor. For decades they had experienced something very different. What went into the ballot boxes was one thing, what came out quite another.

Given that experience, and knowing that elections are going to go ahead irrespective of their boycott, people realised that MLAs will get elected by default if they do not come out to choose the person they really want. 

While there have been some elections over the years which were viewed as credible, like 1951 when Sheikh Abdullah's candidates won uncontested in all the constituencies, or 1977, Kashmiris have, on the whole, viewed polls as a farce. The 1987 verdict was a milestone because of the way it was rigged shamelessly. It became the starting point for the militancy which gripped the valley in the years that followed.

The 2002 election turned out to be another milestone, but for the opposite reason. It whetted people's appetite for elections, and this was reflected in the local elections that followed, seeing even larger voter turnouts.

It is interesting that many Kashmiris give the credit for the 2002 polls specifically to the then Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh for his toughness in ensuring that polls were not rigged, thereby restoring the sanctity of elections.

More than anything else, it was Ganderbal which helped convince doubters in 2002 that the polls were free and fair. The constituency, which had been the fiefdom of the Abdullahs since the mid-fifties, saw the stunning defeat of Omar Abdullah. The poll led to the ouster of the invincible National Conference despite the NDA ruling at the Centre. This time too, all eyes are on Ganderbal, from where Omar Abdullah's is seeking an election again, assuring voters that he has learnt his lessons.

The second trend that is visible today is the differentiation the people in the valley have made between electing their representatives and the resolution of the Kashmir problem. This was also evident to some degree in 2002.  

Before the recent upsurge there was enthusiasm in the Valley for the impending elections.  The discussions in April and May in Srinagar [Images] this year centred around the extent to which the voter turnout would overtake the 2002 figures, which averaged 29.5 percent in the valley, 54 percent in Jammu, giving an overall average of around 44 percent.

Then came the sudden upsurge on the Amarnath row, which was a spontaneous movement, happening in spite of leaders. The separatists rode on its crest, and used it to mobilise people for `azadi' and a boycott of the polls.

The voter response this time shows that people have not allowed the earlier enthusiasm for elections to clash with the movement for azadi -- despite the Hurriyat's call for a poll boycott. They have not seen a contradiction between going for elections and supporting the Kashmir cause.

They have not forgotten that the polls in 2002 changed the discourse in and around Kashmir. The shift from "hot pursuit" to "healing touch" also raised people's hopes for a solution to the Kashmir problem. Parties started to openly acknowledge a Kashmir dispute. The CBMs that were put in place -- like the opening of the routes across the border -- reinforced their hopes. Though the dialogue process ran aground in the last couple of years, people probably still see an elected government -- rather than governor's rule -- in Srinagar facilitating the processes towards the resolution of the dispute.

They expect their MLAs to provide them the bijlee-sadak-paani-school, to be accessible to them in a way that the governor cannot be, but they may also hope for a further thawing of the situation on the ground, so life becomes easier. While, for instance,  the LoC has been opened up for travel and trade, the process for getting the permit is a long and frustrating one, and can take up to months, robbing the measure of the impact it could have had. The recently flagged off trade across the border is still a barter arrangement. You cannot phone from Srinagar to Muzzafarabad to place orders, though it is possible to call Kashmir from PoK.

The popular response will not only pose a new challenge for the next government in Srinagar but also for the government in Delhi. The Centre will have to be mindful, and doubly so, of this window of opportunity which, for all the mistakes made recently, might come its way once again.   

This is also a moment to recall that, at one level, Kashmir opted for accession to India because of the shared values of democracy and secularism. As a Muslim-majority state, it could have gone with a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The tragedy is that over the decades, the Centre did not encourage these processes to grow naturally in the state as it should have done. At the end of the day, democracy, though flawed, has its own way of pointing to solutions. It is the people of the beleaguered state of J&K who are reminding us of that promise.


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