September 17, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

The winds of change

The votes have not been counted. Many have not even been cast. But it seems safe to say that the ballot has got the better of the bullet in Jammu and Kashmir. With a reported voting percentage of 44 per cent, that may seem a bit of an exaggeration, but it comes as no surprise to any psephologist.

The Election Commission used to have a rule --- it may still exist, for all I know --- that any constituency that reported an unusually high polling percentage would be subjected to a discreet investigation. This was borne of the cynical view that in a democracy many citizens simply cannot be bothered to exercise their franchise.

Take, for instance, the Lok Sabha polls of 1999. They came hard on the heels of the Kargil conflict, the Vajpayee government's one-vote defeat on the motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha, and so on --- all issues that would supposedly stir voters. So what happened?

In Delhi, the political heart of the country, the percentage of voters who came to the booths was an abysmal 43.67. In the elite seats of New Delhi and South Delhi, the numbers were even lower --- a miserable 41.81 per cent and 41.92 per cent, respectively! The 44 per cent reported in the first stage of the Jammu and Kashmir polls is actually quite respectable when seen against those figures!

I should point out that these figures are actually par for the course in large democracies. I am sure everyone recalls the hotly contested presidential polls in the United States in November 2000. But what most people do not realise is that the 111 million citizens who voted represented only 55 per cent of eligible voters. And that was an improvement over the 1996 polls where the percentage was just 49 per cent!

Of course, the statistics in Jammu and Kashmir would have looked a lot better if it were not for places like Sopore, where the Hurriyat's call for a boycott was obeyed. But even that is good in a way. I prefer honest reports about low voter turnout to farcical claims of 80 per cent. As in General Pervez Musharraf's absurd 'referendum' this past April!

In all fairness, I should point out that some Indian leaders have been just as brazen as the Pakistani president. I still shudder at the thought of the by-election held in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, to enable Narasimha Rao to enter the Lok Sabha. Some ballot boxes remained sealed because the voting percentage would have become embarrassingly high had they been opened.

This, in fact, is probably the fairest and freest poll held in unhappy Jammu and Kashmir since 1978. (Was it just a coincidence that two prominent members of the Union Cabinet of that day were Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani?) The governments elected since then may have voiced the aspirations of the voters, but the numbers always seemed on the high side. (To me anyway!)

Statistics, however, have never told anything but part of the story. And elections are not an end in themselves. So, will there be any change in the relationship between India and Pakistan as a result of these assembly polls? Only a dreamer would say so!

The most that any Indian government can offer to Jammu and Kashmir is a large measure of autonomy within the Indian Union. (Is there any reason, by the way, why other states should not be granted similar privileges?) Pakistan's objective, reiterated by generations of its leaders, is to carry out the "unfinished task" of Partition --- namely, bring all of Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan. How is an assembly poll going to help fit that round peg into this particular square?

Pakistan will always reject any poll that does not elect a secessionist majority to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. To buttress its case, Pakistan must also try to cast doubts on the validity of the democratic process itself in Jammu and Kashmir. Given the country's own spotty record in conducting elections, this is a thankless task. And more so because India had the wits to allow free rein to foreign observers --- some diplomats and lots of media persons. I think CNN got it just about right in saying: "While there does not appear to be any great enthusiasm for the candidates on offer, a steady flow of people in the surrounding areas express a desire to at least exercise their franchise."

But, as pointed out above, lack of enthusiasm is as much of a problem in Delhi as in Jammu and Kashmir; the important point is that there is a consensus of opinion on the elections being fair.

A Pakistani academic whom I met on my last visit to London added a new reason for his country's denigrating the assembly polls. Free elections in Jammu and Kashmir, according to him, could potentially lead to pleas for more of the same in the neighbourhood. (Especially in that section of Kashmir, which is administered by Islamabad.) In other words, those who are not in favour of democracy per se have a vested interest in mocking the polls.

I do not pretend to know if he was correct. But what I do know is that he was right insofar as this is a battle of ideologies, not of candidates, in Jammu and Kashmir. To vote or to deny the power of the ballot --- that is the primary issue in the state today. Once, Delhi preferred to fight fear with fear; today, it is those who use fear as a measure of control who are upset.

They fear freedom. Because ideas too can infiltrate across a line of control.

Jammu and Kashmir Elections 2002: The complete coverage

T V R Shenoy

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