Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed a prolonged period of violence which has obstructed the socio-political and economic development of the state. Despite the hostile environment, the recent panchayat elections witnessed a turnout of nearly 80 per cent, signalling enthusiasm among the masses for the electoral process. These elections therefore bring with them a silver lining of hope.
The overall participation in these elections is a potential indicator of future polls with a similar level of turnout. These elections, held after a prolonged gap of 10 years, beg the questions: Do the panchayati polls possess the ability to positively influence the Kashmir issue? How do the Kashmiris view this election and what is the motive behind their massive participation? Opinions differ, and are divided into three broad categories – two within the mainstream and the third represented by the separatists.
According to first group, these elections hold the possibility of achieving a positive change in rural Kashmir. In the absence of local institutions, the socio-economic development of rural Kashmir has been severely affected. In fact prevalent corruption at the higher political levels has crippled community level development. At this juncture, the devolution of governance from the centre to the grassroots will certainly embrace community-based development, which, if properly implemented will lead to a positive transformation of the situation. Devolution of power will empower the grassroots, making it self-dependent and enabling work towards the achievement of desired changes within the community. It will also help in identifying and working on local issues such as education, health, agriculture, employment and communication more effectively. Media reports maintain that the effective functioning of local governance has brought various constructive changes at the community level in other Indian states, such as in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, irrespective of their past state of being. The Central government’s initiative to introduce Panchayati raj in the Northeastern states conveys the government’s trust in the institution, and is a success story worth emulating in Kashmir.
Other assessments suggest that these polls are just an issue of local governance, and the rate of participation should not be linked to the broader context of the situation. The people participate in the election process to achieve their rights through an elected representative. The hope that a local representative can perform to fulfill their aspirations is actually enhancing the participation rate. Although few critics have pointed out that with elected representatives there is always the possibility of being inducted into the corrupt political mainstream; one can still not deny the fact that this election has the potential to breed new leaders who are a better embodiment of rural Kashmir and will be able to personally identify with the problems that beset them. That these polls have been favourably looked upon by opposition leaders also indicates its positive bearing. In an April edition of Greater Kashmir, one of Kashmir’s leading newspapers, Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP, has expressed her satisfaction with the turnout and has mentioned the enthusiasm of Kashmiris in ascertaining their own future. According to this opinion, although the election creates a feeling of hope, it does not hold any promises toward a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
Conversely, the separatist view states that the election will not entail any specific change; it is just another attempt by the Indian government to deceive the Kashmiris. Past failures such as during the elections of 1987, which witnessed massive fraud and broken promises supports the views of the separatists. Adding to this is the notion that the existing corruption at administrative levels does not leave scope for any constructive socio-economic transformation. Punjab on the other hand provides a positive story, where inspite of electoral deficiencies, the state limped back to normalcy and is now fully stable.
Amidst these arguments, what remains unaddressed is the fate of Kashmiris in the aftermath of elections. In the various opinions on these elections that have been professed and recorded, one thing is certain: positive change in Jammu and Kashmir will be possible only with the effective functioning of local institutions.