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Saturday, June 3, 2023

EC says there’s a political ‘vacuum’ in J&K, but what about the security vacuum?

Recently when Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar was announcing the schedule for the Karnataka Assembly polls, he made a significant comment about the elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

He said, “We are aware that there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.”

The last Assembly elections in J&K, when it had its special status under Article 370, were held in November-December 2014. The vacuum is not of a few months, but of several years. After the BJP pulled out of the coalition with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) on June 19, 2018, Jammu and Kashmir was placed under the Governor’s rule. And, since then there has been no Assembly — first, it was kept in suspended animation, and then it was dissolved on November 21, 2018.

So, when the CEC says that there is a vacuum, it is not to be taken lightly.

But then, J&K is a special case with Pakistan constantly trying to create disturbance, either through its terrorism sponsored by it, or trying to provoke religious fanaticism. With the high security considerations at play, the decision to hold elections and get the other political processes in motion is directly connected with the security and defence of the frontier territory.

Recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said during a media interaction that the call on elections has to be taken by the Election Commission. He said, “Whenever they say they are prepared, the polls will happen.”

The Election Commission is also moving one step at a time, getting the relevant processes started one by one. In March 2020, the Delimitation Commission was formed and it gave its report in May 2022 — the delay of 14 months was due to the Covid pandemic. Jammu got an increase of six seats, from 37 to 43, while Kashmir got just one more seat — 46 to 47.

After the Commission’s report, a summary revision of electoral rolls was ordered, which was completed in November 2022. With this, the political parties were hopeful of the Assembly elections being held. But nothing has happened.

At present, the second summary revision of electoral rolls is underway in the UT. This came barely four months after the first summary revision of the electoral rolls was completed.

In June last year, the poll panel had ordered a special summary revision of electoral rolls, which was completed on November 25 last year. This exercise would culminate on May 10 with the publication of the final electoral rolls.

The Election Commission is likely to visit both the Jammu and Kashmir divisions to assess the ground situation, although there are no indications that the Assembly elections, which are overdue, will be conducted.

The coming months are going to be hectic as G20 meetings followed by the annual Amarnath Yatra are scheduled, which leave little scope for any election activity.

India will hold the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting in Srinagar on May 22-24. Hectic preparations are on for the crucial event, and it is clear that New Delhi is attempting to package Kashmir as a tourist hub for the international participants.

After the G20 meetings end, the annual Amarnath pilgrimage will begin on July 1. The yatra this year will be of 62 days, culminating on August 31. The security forces and the administration will be tied up with the arrangements for the lakhs of visiting devotees.

That means any probable decision on the election will be taken up only after that.

The panchayat elections are also scheduled for the end of the year. As the Centre has been laying emphasis on local body elections in the UT, getting them out of the way first is going to be a priority.

Like many other laws, till the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, there was no Panchayati Raj System in Jammu and Kashmir. Only the MLAs were entitled to supervise both urban and rural development on their own and there was no representation at the grassroots level.

With the abrogation of Article 370, the UT has seen the basic democratic institutions, namely, the block and district development councils being set up. The BDC and DDC elections were held in the UT, thus establishing the three-tier Panchayati Raj system.

Unlike the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, the panchayat elections will take a longer time to be completed. And by that time the focus will shift to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The political parties in the UT have been crying hoarse for the restoration of the Assembly. Recently, an all-party delegation met the Election Commission in Delhi and said that it was its constitutional obligation to conduct Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

The delegation said in a memorandum to the ECI, “The panchayat elections and elections to other Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) cannot be substituted for Legislative Assembly elections and the government and for that matter, the ECI cannot avoid and delay Assembly elections on that ground. Had it been so, there would be no need to conduct Assembly elections in states.”

Jammu and Kashmir is without a Legislative Assembly and an elected government for five years. This can only be termed as disregard of the letter and spirit of the Constitution, say the political parties, adding that an “unrepresentative and unaccountable bureaucracy is allowed to run the government, much to the discomfort and inconvenience of the general public”.

The Assembly election, no doubt, is the most important step towards the restoration of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed in the Constitution. And the CEC is fully aware of the situation, as was evident from his admission that there exists a “vacuum” in the UT.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed with a modified headline.)

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