When the Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha was patting himself on the back for ensuring decentralization of decision making at the development level by transferring more works and departments to the elected local bodies representatives, he certainly was not unmindful of the fact that what he was flashing as a victory of democracy was nearly non-existent.
In the same breath he announced that polls to urban local bodies, whose tenure ends this month, will take place after the completion of the delimitation exercise of wards and reservation of seats for Other Backward Classes. Juxtaposition of the two remarks is oxymoronic. He was proclaiming that what he deemed to be a great experiment would remain suspended till the appearance of the blue moon.
“One can only marvel at the BJP’s marketing skills – of trying to sell to the world an experiment of incremental disenfranchisement in Jammu and Kashmir as a ‘democratic achievement’. The word democracy can be vague and can denote several things but there are internationally accepted matrixes for measuring democracy. None of these seem to match the BJP’s definition.”
So, elections to local bodies cannot take place till a delimitation takes place. If that was a technical requirement, why didn’t the government start the process well in advance to ensure that the polls are held before the end of the tenure of the different urban local bodies? The same government jumped the queue to rush with the delimitation of assembly and parliamentary constituencies in 2020, despite a nation-wide freeze. The report was finalized and ready by May 2022 even though delimitation process was not mandatory for holding the assembly polls – which, by the way, is nowhere in sight.
Rhetorically, the government has given confusing messages on holding assembly elections. It has boasted about normalcy, economic progress and peace. Alternatively, from time to time, it has used the pretext of ‘inconducive law and order situation’ to justify the endless delay on holding elections. At best the government stand has been vague. During the Article 370 hearings in the Supreme Court last August, India’s Solicitor General averred that the government is ready for elections “any time now”. A month ago, Chief Election Commissioner, Rajiv Kumar, said the elections will be scheduled but failed to give any time frame.
There couldn’t be a greater comedy of errors. We have a government which brags about democracy and normalcy. It is armed with a delimitation report that was not required for an election, and yet chooses not to hold those elections, more than a year after the finalization of the report. It had the responsibility to conduct the delimitation process for another election but forgot to do so. The net result that all tiers of democracy are now becoming defunct in Jammu and Kashmir.
Is this about sheer incompetence or willful contempt of democracy and democratic requirements. Though elections cannot be the only measure of democracy, in the past the successful holding of elections provided a fig leaf to New Delhi to cover up its shameful manipulation of the socio-political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir, often through rigged elections. The BJP government at the Centre has decided to discard even that by choosing to keep J&K’s elections in suspended animation till eternity.
Since the dismantling of the Jammu and Kashmir state in 2019 with the erosion of its special status, its dismemberment and its demotion, the Centre has already usurped all power in its hands through its appointed points man – the Lieutenant Governor. Political voices have been throttled, press is muzzled and all democratic spaces have been shut down with complete intolerance to protests, even those related to basic public needs like water, electricity, roads and jobs. A free press and a robust civil society are the biggest indicators of democracy because the most important matrix for measuring democracy is accountability – which exists through government, public and civil institutions. Nonetheless, the significance of elections cannot be trivialized. They provide stability to democracy and empower the public with the choice of representatives and thus form an important layer of direct accountability. Besides, they could be an important step towards restoring public trust in institutions and democratizing public spaces.
One can only marvel at the BJP’s marketing skills – of trying to sell to the world an experiment of incremental disenfranchisement in Jammu and Kashmir as a ‘democratic achievement’. The word democracy can be vague and can denote several things but there are internationally accepted matrixes for measuring democracy. None of these seem to match the BJP’s definition, whose most horrifying explication was recently made by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha who claimed that 80% people were happy with the existing status quo and did not want elected representatives.
That’s the kind of ‘democracy’ with imagined referendums and invisibilised public that the BJP has offered to Jammu and Kashmir.