The recently concluded district-level elections in Jammu and Kashmir could potentially trigger a tantalizing role reversal: the state handing power back to the people rather than the people being forced to cede their freedoms to the state.
Ordinary citizens have immense faith in the transformative potential of the newly formed District Development Councils (DDCs). This is evident in the good voter turnout for electing “agents of change” to District Councils (DCs). The process also gained added significance after the “insane” National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party chose to lift their boycott and participate in the elections.
All of this means that for the first time in many years, an overwhelming majority of participants hailed the verdict. A harsh but healthy competition began between the competitors to project the results as a justification for their position. For many victorious independents and new regional parties, the results reflect a vote for change – a desire to free Jammu and Kashmir from the monopoly clutches of a few families and their lackeys who have dominated for decades. Another major contender, the BJP, attributes its rise as a “pan J&K” party to support for its muscular brand of nationalism. While, for the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, which contested as alliance partners, the result is a justification for their focus on even more emotional issues, like the reinstatement of Article 370.
While it is true that there is a lot of work to be done to flesh out the bed of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, it is undeniable that the mood has shifted from chronic discouragement to cautious optimism.
In light of this, what then explains the high degree of cynicism about the DDC experience among some influential political observers and leaders? Why, instead of focusing on how best to use the “demographic dividend”, are they voicing a litany of complaints about the DDCs themselves?
A lingering caveat is that the DC elections violate the “one person, one vote” principle. While it is true that each CD – regardless of its size or population – has the same number of elected members as the next, does this “violation” really threaten the fundamental principles of democracy?
In America, the world’s oldest democracy, each state can send two representatives to the upper house, the Senate, regardless of its size and population. When creating the Senate, the drafters of the US constitution deliberately ignored the “one person, one vote” principle to ensure that all states had a say in the legislative process. The arrangement in the Senate is designed to control the Lower House of Representatives where states with more seats due to their larger populations might dominate those with fewer seats.
In Jammu and Kashmir, there is an urgent need to correct the imbalance in the distribution of state resources between the two regions. For various reasons, Kashmir has always captured the lion’s share of public funds. Clearly, while the assembly elections were conducted on a one-person, one-vote basis, they did not guarantee equal representation in Jammu.
There are also those who claim that directly elected DCs will virtually behave like “district assemblies” on the run, eclipsing the state assembly. This claim exaggerates reality. The DDC system in Jammu and Kashmir is not entirely without precedent. When designing this new administrative level, the architects drew heavily on the spirit of the 6th annex of the Constitution. This enables the creation of autonomous district councils to better administer the sensitive tribal areas in northeast India. Although these bodies have varying degrees of autonomy within their respective states, they are not exactly a law in themselves. There is no reason to think that elected DC members of J&K who do not have independent recourse to funds would deliberately want to refer members of the legislature.
For years in Jammu and Kashmir, leaders and experts have linked empowerment with greater self-reliance. But now, when presented with the opportunity to take the reins, they seem to suspect a system specially designed to bring empowerment to their doorstep. Does their reluctance come from knowing that the SDCs with elected officials will strike at the heart of a deeply rooted client-state relationship? Indeed, for years, District Development Councils (the forerunners of the new DDCs) were filled with unelected members. Instead of overseeing development, these councils have become a channel for channeling development funds away from the people.
The creation of the DDCs is an important turning point. In a region where, in times of political conflict, democracy has often ended up being the first victim, the last thing people need to fear is too much democracy.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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