The seven-party People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) both declared victory in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s District Development Council (DDC) elections on Wednesday, interpreting differently what the verdict meant in the backdrop of the Centre’s controversial decision to scrap the erstwhile state’s special status last year.
As a high-octane war of words played out, PAGD partners said the people rejected the Union government’s decision to scrap Article 370, which accorded special status to J&K, while the BJP contended that the results showed voters said no to “terrorism and separatism” and took the path of nationalism.
In the eight-phase DDC elections — the first such exercise in J&K and also the first major voting in the region since Article 370 was scrapped on August 5, 2019 — the PAGD, a two-month-old bloc featuring regional powerhouses National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), took the pole position by winning an impressive 110 seats of the total 280 on offer across the Union Territory’s 20 districts (14 seats each).
The BJP grabbed 75 seats and emerged as the single-largest party on the back of its performance in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, where it won 72 of the 140 seats.
NC leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah praised the performance of the PAGD, which won 84 seats in Kashmir and 26 in Jammu, and attacked the Centre’s ruling BJP. “If you really say that democracy has won, then you will have to listen to the voices of the people. And the people of Jammu and Kashmir have said it with a huge majority that they do not accept (the decisions of) August 5, 2019,” he said, addressing party workers at the NC headquarters, Nawa-i-Subah, in Srinagar.
At the victory celebrations, Abdullah said there might not be any assembly elections in the Union territory anytime soon. “The next elections in J&K are very far because of the defeat of the BJP in this election…If they believed in democracy, they would have sounded the bugle of the assembly elections,” he said.
“We could have many more seats had we not contested in the alliance. But for achieving a bigger goal, small or big sacrifices have to be made… It was our duty to keep aside our differences and to come on a single platform for our identity,” he added, referring to the alliance that took shape in October 2020 to demand the restoration of J&K’s special status.
Farooq Abdullah, his farther and another former chief minister, said NC workers proved again that “anti-Kashmir forces cannot wipe out our party”, which won the most seats (67) among the seven coalition partners. “It was the BJP that made the DDC elections look like a referendum (on the Article 370 move)…now the people of J&K have made their aversion to the August 5 measures known,” he said.
Former chief minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, too, hit out at the BJP. “People have voted en masse for the alliance…Article 370 still lives in our hearts and minds and we will fight for it until our last breath,” she told NDTV news channel. Mufti also said she would not contest elections until the decision to nullify of Article 370 was reversed.
On August 5, 2019, the central government nullified Article 370 and bifurcated J&K into two Union Territories – J&K with a legislative assembly and Ladakh without one — triggering widespread protests. The BJP and the Centre maintain that the decision will eventually help the region, deal a blow to terrorism and usher in development.
Facing a volley of criticism, the BJP fielded a host of its top leaders to counter the PAGD’s narrative. Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad rejected the contention that the results were a win for the alliance, stressing that it was the BJP that emerged as the single-largest party.
“This is a victory for India, democracy, hope, development and people of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s larger narrative…,” he told a press conference.
On Twitter, Union home minister Amit Shah thanked “sisters and brothers” of J&K and said the BJP will continue to “work relentlessly towards the prosperity and development of the region” under the leadership of PM Modi.
“Modi government is doing everything possible to restore the grass root democracy in Jammu & Kashmir. The recently held DDC polls for the first time in the history of J&K is the testimony of the same. The mass participation in these elections reflects people’s faith in democracy,” he added.
His colleague, Anurag Thakur, countered the PAGD’s contention that people voted against the nullification of Article 370, and asserted the BJP and Independents together got over 52% votes.
“This shows J&K people have rejected the Gupkar Gang,” he told reporters in Jammu. The people have spoken out against “terrorism and separatism” and voted in favour of democracy and nationalism, added Thakur, who was actively involved in the campaign.
The BJP’s vote share in the DDC elections stood at 24.5%. This number was 27.9% for Independents, who won a total of 50 seats and could play kingmakers in at least two districts. The combined vote share of the PAGD camp — also comprising the Peoples Conference, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the Peoples Movement, the Awami National Conference, and the Jammu and Kashmir People Democratic Front — stood at 22.9%.
In terms of strike rate, the BJP won 75 of the total 230 seats it contested (32.6%). The strike rate for the NC and the PDP, two major constituents of the PAGD, stood at 40.9% (67 seats of the 164 contested) and 39.7% (27 seats of the 68 contested).
Overall, the PAGD had a clear majority in six districts (all in Kashmir) while it was close to majority in three others. The BJP had a clear majority in five districts (all in Jammu) and was close to majority in one other district. In the remaining five districts, no single party had a majority.
Held under the shadow of Covid-19, the elections witnessed a turnout of 51.76% over the eight phases from November 29 to December 19.
The BJP says the results showed that the party is acceptable to both the regions of the Union Territory, underscoring that three of its candidates won from the Kashmir Valley (Khanmoh-II in Srinagar district, Kakapora-II in Pulwama district and Tulail in Bandipora district), apart from the 72 wins in Jammu.