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This article was first published 9 years ago  » News » The name of the game is poll boycott

The name of the game is poll boycott

By Mohammad Sayeed Malik
November 24, 2014 10:37 IST
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Voters in J&KThe fruits of election boycotts are harvested not only by the separatists but also by beneficiaries across the democratic divide, points out Mohammad Sayeed Malik.

The outcome of elections in Jammu and Kashmir is, conventionally, determined as much by the visible contest between contending rivals as it is influenced by the invisible dynamics of disguised cross-loyalties between playing and non-playing stakeholders.

The name of the game is poll boycott. Over the past few years, this game has been developed into a fine art of deception.

The fruits of election boycotts are harvested not only by its declared patent holders within the separatist camp but also by coincidental beneficiaries across the democratic divide. It has become a vicious feature of the poll scene in this state.

The election boycott has a history in the resistance movement of Kashmir. During the days of the Plebiscite Front (1955 to 1975), the mighty Sheikh Abdullah used it, with varying degrees of success. At its peak he even enlarged its sweep by launching 'social boycott' (tark-e-maulaat) of his (pro-accession) political opponents.

By 1970, he sensed its diminishing returns and quietly let it drop off his agenda. The Sheikh's return to the mainstream in 1975, after his Kashmir Accord with Indira Gandhi, marked the end of that chapter.

After the Sheikh's demise in 1982, boycott politics bounced back to life with a deadly cutting edge in the political fallout of armed insurgency in the state (the early 1990s). Defiance attracted physical liquidation. A large number of vulnerable candidates, voters, campaigners and political activists paid the ultimate price.

However, its potency as a political weapon decreased with the declining level of the armed insurgency. Nevertheless, it refuses to die down completely. Sporadic incidents continue to occur across the conflict-ridden border state. An undisguised external dimension propels it.

Statistics show that the psychological fear factor lurking behind the boycott campaign has been much more effective in its compliance than its proclaimed ideological or political appeal.

Unprecedented massive voter turnout in the last panchayat elections three years ago marked the anti-climax of the story that began in the 1990s. Voters in huge numbers thronged polling booths even as pro-boycott militants gunned down a number of them. Defiance of fear and disregard of threats on this scale was unprecedented.

However, this crucial reality has not deterred the promoters and beneficiaries of poll boycotts from clinging to it for extracting whatever advantage it could still yield. Its quantitative value has increased with the fragmentation of the electoral arena.

Percentage of voter turnout is now a critical factor in ultimate poll arithmetic. As a result, there is a sharp division over this issue even in the separatist ranks.

The boycott lobby stands divided between its active promoters and passive backers. The result is that the pull of the boycott appeal diminishes after every round of elections.

By now it has been reduced to a game of political deception. The run-up to the recent Lok Sabha election in Kashmir revealed it in black and white. The pro-boycott thrust remained focused on south Kashmir and only symbolically so in north and central parts of the Valley.

Crudely disguised official connivance gave away the game plan of the intended beneficiary -- the ruling National Conference which has been uprooted from south Kashmir by the People's Democratic Party.

Having manipulated illicit electoral benefits from poll boycotts for the last 18 years the National Conference has got addicted to this menace. So much so that it does not mind getting caught in the act, as indeed happened during the parliamentary elections in south Kashmir.

The National Conference tasted the concoction in full measure in the 1996 assembly election when it recorded its highest-ever tally of 57 seats (out of 87 seats). The 1996 polls were held after a long spell of President's rule imposed in the wake of armed insurgency in 1989-1990. The fear factor was at its peak.

Statistics show that in the assembly and parliamentary elections held since 2002 which were variously affected by poll boycotts, the benefit of low turnouts invariably went to the National Conference.

The history of the outcome in the worst boycott-hit nine assembly segments in Srinagar city, from election to election, leaves nothing to doubt. Coincidence of 'interest' between the boycott lobby and the National Conference is intriguing considering the politico-ideological divide between the separatists and the mainstream.

In addition to thriving on poll boycotts, the National Conference, right from 1977, fell for another weakness: Post-poll rigging; rather needlessly. In the assembly elections held in 1987 the National Conference's seat percentage (65.51) was grossly disproportionate to its (lower) percentage of polled votes (34.78).

On the other hand, the corresponding score of the Congress party (second in the weightage) presented a contrast. The Congress won only 7 seats (08.04 per cent of the total 87 seats) although its share in the polled votes was 20.00 per cent.

Large scale rigging in the 1987 polls is universally acknowledged as being the trigger for the outbreak of armed conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the officially documented evidence regarding the 1987 assembly elections, the National Conference candidate in Bijbehara constituency won by 100 votes whereas 1,177 votes were rejected.

In Wachhi, the National Conference won by 122 votes while 1,806 votes were declared invalid.

In Shopian, the National Conference's margin of victory was 336 votes, against 1,122 rejected votes.

In all, 11 constituencies were won by the National Conference in this manner where the margin of victory was either less than or too close to the number of votes declared invalid by (obliging) returning officers.

In all these cases, the loser was the Muslim United Front. One of the defeated MUF candidates, Yousuf Shah, is today the head of the Pakistan-based Hizb-ul-Mujahidin, with his assumed name, Syed Salah-ud-Din.

The Lok Sabha election 2014 let the proverbial cat out of the bag. The conduct of the first phase of polling (in south Kashmir dominated by the PDP) exposed a sinister pattern: The state machinery virtually reinforcing the separatist-propelled poll boycott by deliberately aggravating the fear factor.

The Election Commission had to intervene after the exposure of the diabolic game in the first phase (in south Kashmir) involving a section of the separatists and the ruling party. The boycott campaign was brazenly patronised by the state machinery.

If the PDP managed to stay afloat it was because of a deep anti-establishment undercurrent. Also, the chemistry between the National Conference and the Congress, who were electoral allies, failed to click on the ground, to the PDP's advantage.

The PDP's SOS to the central election authorities yielded quick response as the subsequent two phases of elections in central and north Kashmir constituencies passed off normally.

For a change, the game to sabotage the popular verdict was foiled effectively with the timely intervention of the Election Commission of India.

It is, however, a million dollar question as to whether the purity of the poll process will be preserved in the ongoing assembly election, given that this time the Bharatiya Janata Party is impatient to 'conquer' the country's only Muslim-majority state.

On its part, the National Conference has nightmares after its drubbing in the parliamentary election. Its ruling alliance partner, the Congress, also faces a rout.

Resort to deception via the boycott factor is too tempting a proposition for all these parties to resist in the circumstances.

Image: Voters in Kashmir during the Lok Sabha election.

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