September 20, 2002



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Mohammad Sayeed Malik

Kashmir's craving for good governance

Election 2002

The first round of the four-phase assembly election in Jammu & Kashmir on September 16 indicated a new feature of voter behaviour, which till now was largely influenced by emotive considerations. For the first time, there was a discernible trend in the voting pattern that showed a definite awareness of the need for good governance.

Kashmir has been a victim of either mis-governance or non-governance, thanks to the state's murky politics.

Another visible feature of the polling --- which ranged from a poor 8 to 9 per cent in Sopore town in the valley to a high 67 per cent in the Kargil district of the Ladakh region --- was that voters did not seem to be captivated by the appeal of any particular political party. Individual merit of the contesting candidates looks to have been a major consideration in determining not only the preference of the electorate, but also an important factor in its turnout to exercise this choice.

Polling was relatively heavier in areas like Kupwara where the 'proxy' presence of the People's Conference, a constituent of the Hurriyat Conference, coupled with the perceived appeal of its 'independent' candidates, provided added motivation to the voters. This notwithstanding the fact that Kupwara was the scene of some bloody events in the run-up to the September 16 polling.

In a way, the first round had something for everybody in the fray --- and out of it. There was a fairly good turnout, taking into consideration the attendant circumstances, notably the threat of militancy and general disillusionment with the history of conduct of elections in J&K. For the Hurriyat and Pakistan, there were also pockets of 'resistance' where voters refused to move out.

The ruling National Conference, haunted by fears of the anti-incumbency factor, allegedly used fair and foul means to reinforce the Hurriyat's poll-boycott call. The NC had the satisfaction of seeing urban pockets like the towns of Sopore and Baramulla witnessing a very low turnout of voters. Conversely, their rivals had the satisfaction of mobilizing large numbers of voters in the adjoining semi-urban and rural areas.

To understand the real meaning of the word 'coercion', which has come to be associated so very closely with the Kashmir elections since the outbreak of militancy in 1989-90, one has to dip a bit deeper. On the face of it, coercion is generally taken to mean that reluctant voters were forcibly taken to polling stations and made to cast their votes. Indeed, that is what happened at a few places. But that is only half the truth. The full truth is that there was a far larger number of voters who wanted to be 'coerced' --- or, to put it more accurately, wanted to be seen being coerced by the security forces. This tactic is a tool in the survival kit of Kashmiris trapped between the militant's gun on the one side and the soldier's gun on the other.

As the large population in the valley remains unprotected, unlike the VVIPs and VIPs living in safe havens and moving under a security blanket, they have to reckon with both the guns. Their better sense has taught them to restrain their inner urge to go out and vote for their favourite candidate. The militants, having tellingly demonstrated that they mean business when they propagate the boycott of elections, will not brook any defiance of their diktat. But if a soldier 'coerces' a voter, he can plead innocence with the militant who is bound to visit him after the elections are over and the elaborate security paraphernalia is rolled up for good.

That is why this type of voter relishes this 'coercion'. In fact, at many places reporters heard such voters cursing the security forces for 'failing' to coerce them.

Although it was only the first of four rounds of polling and it might be premature to draw any definite conclusion yet, it must be said that for the first time --- yes, for the first time --- the Election Commission of India appears to have proved its credibility and also the legitimacy of the electoral process. The perceived fairness of the EC was too visible to be missed by those who have the experience of covering previous elections in Kashmir.

It was rather a strange sight to see the 'King's Party' groping the dark about the EC's strict arrangements. The abrupt replacement of about a dozen polling staff barely a few hours before polling in Handwara constituency had a healthy impact on the EC's perceived image. The change was effected on the plea of an independent candidate who is facing Agriculture Minister Choudhary Mohammad Ramzan in this constituency. The replaced staff belonged to Ramzan's department. Such actions are unprecedented in a place like Kashmir and do not go unnoticed.

All told, the first round of polling concluded on a satisfying note for those who stand for the nourishment of democratic temper --- rather than relying only on military options --- to contain the separatist challenge in Kashmir.

Mohammad Sayeed Malik

J&K govt to probe allegations of coercion of voters
Jammu & Kashmir Elections 2002: The complete coverage

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