The Bugle sounded

Political parties gearing up for panchayat and ULB polls
People inside a polling booth in Bandipora. [Representational Image]
People inside a polling booth in Bandipora. [Representational Image] Mubashir Khan for Greater Kashmir

On expected lines the panchayat and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) elections are going to be held in Jammu and Kashmir before the assembly and parliament polls.

The present Panchayats and local bodies are nearing the completion of their five year term as their polls were conducted in 2018. The new state election commissioner B R Sharma recently stated that panchayat elections are likely to be held in October-November this year. Chief electoral officer P K Pole also set into motion the process for the ULBs' polls.

After the two announcements, the political parties have started making necessary preparations in this direction. In coming months when the election schedule will be finally announced, more action will be seen on the political front.

In 2018 the panchayat polls were held on non-party basis and this time also the elections are likely to be held on same pattern. However, a final decision about it is to be taken later. Last time the ULB polls were held on party basis, so naturally it is being expected that this time too the exercise will be conducted same way.

The 2023 polls will see wider participation of political parties. Two major parties, National Conference and PDP, had not participated last time and now they have already announced to be in the electoral fray. Other parties - BJP, Congress, Apni Party, Peoples Conference and Democratic Progressive Azad Party ( DPAP) - will also like to contest in a big way. So, both panchayat and ULB polls are likely to generate lot of interest among the contesting parties, their parties and supporters. The results will also provide a glimpse into the mood of voters across Jammu and Kashmir ahead of the much waited and crucial assembly polls, which are yet to be announced and Parliament elections, likely to be held in April-May next year.

Last assembly polls were held nine years back in 2014, which led to formation of PDP-BJP coalition government, which later collapsed after BJP pulled out. Since then major developments occurred.

Article 370 was abrogated on August 5, 2019 and Jammu and Kashmir state divided into two union territories - Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Delimitation exercise added seven new assembly seats to J&K assembly - six in Jammu and one in Kashmir, reserved nine seats for scheduled tribes and re-drew the boundaries of most assembly and parliamentary constituencies. Pahari community and a few other communities are also about to get the scheduled tribe status shortly as a bill for this purpose has been introduced in the parliament.

Another bill was also introduced in the parliament, which seeks to reserve two seats for Kashmiri migrants and one seat for displaced people from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the J&K legislative assembly. The three members will be nominated by the Lieutenant Governor.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the political scene is completely changed on the ground from what it was in 2014 when the last assembly polls were held. Under this scenario there is uncertainty regarding which party is strong and popular and to what extent, and which party is not. The panchayat and ULB polls can give some indications in this direction. These polls are very important for the political parties regarding their preparations and strategies for assembly elections and parliament polls as well.

Secondly, the panchayat and ULB polls are also imperative for the parties to have a grip on the electoral politics at the grassroots level. The major parties would not like to leave any space for rivals. It is to be seen whether NC, PDP, Congress and CPI (M) will contest the polls jointly or separately. Their moves and subsequent election results can set their future strategy for assembly and Lok Sabha polls also.

Watching the performance of BJP in these polls will be of great interest for the party leadership and to other rival parties. Its popularity in its stronghold Jammu will be tested again in elections there. Can Congress, Panthers Party, DPAP, NC, PDP and Apni Party, and some other Jammu based groups, put a fight there or not? For last several years BJP has tried to widen its support base by reaching out to Gujjar and Bakerwal and Pahari communities.

The party also took some steps for their welfare. In past, NC and Congress, and later PDP to some extent, used to get the support of these communities. BJP's reach out to different sections of society in Kashmir is also in progress. The party wants a foothold in Kashmir and intends to get the support of people. BJP is taking all steps in this direction.

Whether the other parties here like it or not, BJP is seriously knocking at the door of politics in Kashmir now. NC, PDP and Congress is finding it difficult to deal with the new political scenario more particularly when the new parties with their areas of influence have also emerged on the scene. BJP's agenda more particularly regarding its aim to abrogate the Article 370 was very much known from the day it was founded.

The party never concealed its intentions. NC was part of the government with BJP at centre and PDP in Jammu and Kashmir in past. Going by their past association with BJP in the governments, how can they expect people listening to them not to vote for BJP? Such questions are being raised by their rival parties. According to these parties if NC and PDP were in government with BJP in past, how cannot be they in future also if the need arises as there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics.

Political parties do lot of campaigning for themselves during elections and it is finally the discretion of voter for whom to vote. This very discretion is sometimes misread by even big political parties and their leaders and the election results go against their expectations, narratives, campaigning and hard-work during polls.

The panchayat and municipal polls will provide an opportunity after a long time to the political parties to contest for grassroots level democratic set-up, and gear up for the big assembly polls, whenever to be held, and the Parliament elections next year. Their wait for the political power has been long and with patience. Now the ice has started breaking and it is time for their political actions in the electoral fray.

The author is Senior Editor, Greater Kashmir

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