As many as 2,990 candidates are in the fray for the four-phased urban local bodies (ULB) polls in Jammu and Kashmir, where nearly 500 "over ground workers" (OGWs) have been arrested to ensure peaceful polling scheduled to begin next week after a gap of eight years, officials said on Saturday.
The polls are scheduled to begin on October 8, followed by the second phase on October 10, third phase on October 13 and last phase on October 16. The counting of votes will be done on October 20.
As many as 244 candidates have been elected unopposed, majority of them from Kashmir valley where candidates braved militant threats to take part in the democratic exercise. Two mainstream state parties — National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party — have boycotted the polls over the challenge to the validity of Article 35-A of the Constitution.
CPI (M) and BSP are the other two parties which have also stayed away from the municipal polls, leaving the BJP and the Congress in a direct contest. However, the two parties cannot ignore the resurgent National Panthers Party (NPP) especially in Jammu region and independent candidates.
"A total of 2,990 candidates are in the fray for the four-phased elections. Majority are trying their luck from Jammu province with 2,137 candidates, 787 from Kashmir and 66 from Ladakh region", an official of the state election commission told PTI as the last date for withdrawal of candidature in the last phase ended on Friday.
As many as 3,372 candidates had filed their nominations for the four-phased elections. The last election to the municipal bodies in the state was held in 2005 through secret ballot and the term of five years expired in February 2010.
There are 16,97,291 eligible voters in the 1,145 wards across the state. Kashmir valley has the highest number of wards with 598 and an electorate of 10,32,498, while Jammu province has 521 wards with 6,44,568 voters. Ladakh region has 26 wards with electorate of 20,225.
The official said 231 candidates were elected unopposed in Kashmir and 13 in Jammu region. Two wards, one each in Kulgam and Pulwama districts of south Kashmir, did not attract any nomination apparently due to the militant threat, even as the police have arrested about 500 "OGWs" over the past one week across Kashmir as part of the security plan to ensure free and fair elections, officials said.
"About 450 to 500 OGWs of militants who were issuing threats and hatching conspiracies to sabotage the election process were arrested over the past one week," Director General of state Police Dilbag Singh said.
He said the police and other security agencies were fully prepared to face any kind of situation for smooth conduct of the polls.
In first phase, 1,283 candidates are in the fray with 1,010 from Jammu, 207 from Kashmir and 66 from Ladakh for 422 wards (247 in Jammu, 149 in Kashmir, 26 in Ladakh), the official said.
The second phase will seal the fate of 1,094 contestants in 218 wards in Jammu region and 166 wards in Kashmir valley, the official said, adding that 61 candidates got elected unopposed in this phase.
In the third phase, a total of 411 candidates are trying their luck -– 242 in 56 wards of Jammu province and 169 in 151 wards of Kashmir valley, the official said. Forty nine candidates got elected unopposed in this phase, the official said.
Similarly, 202 candidates are in the fray for the fourth and final phase under which are 132 wards. Fifty two candidates were elected unopposed in this phase.
Out of the total 1,145 wards of municipality and local bodies, 90 wards have been reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) and 38 for Scheduled Tribes (ST), which include 31 and 13 wards reserved for SC and ST women respectively, he said.
In addition to this, 322 wards have been reserved for women belonging to the open category, the officer said.
The Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) has the highest number of electors with 6,63,775 persons in 74 wards, followed by Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC) with 75 wards and 4,00,301 electors, he said.
The official said Jammu Municipal Corporation has the highest number of contestants with 447, whose fate would be sealed in the first phase on October 8, while 274 candidates are in the fray for Srinagar Municipal Corporation which is going to polls in all the four phases.
BOYCOTT BY MAJOR PARTIES, VIOLENCE CAST SHADOW OVER POLLS
Even as the local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir shall begin on Monday, the threats, violence and boycott by the state's two main parties – the NC and the PDP – have cast a shadow over the polls, making it seemingly the most low-profile electoral exercise in the history of the state.
While there has been no poll rally, nor any campaigning or even door-to-door canvassing in most parts of the valley, there seems to be a veil of secrecy over the entire process with the names of candidates contesting the polls and even their political affiliations not being disclosed.
Jammu and Kashmir's two main parties –- the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) -– along with CPI(M) have stayed away from the polls due to the legal challenge to Article 35-A of the Constitution in the Supreme Court.
The two regional parties have asked the Centre to make its stand clear in the apex court on the constitutional provision and urged it to defend the article.
While separatists have called for a boycott of the polls, militants have threatened to target persons taking part in these elections.
The boycott by two mainstream political parties and the calls of boycott by the separatists along with the threats and recent violence have led to absolutely minimal campaigning for the four-phased local bodies' polls.
A police official said the prevailing situation in Kashmir does not allow the candidates to campaign openly as there is a threat to their lives.
"The candidates have been given security and most of them have been taken to secure locations, but the situation is such they cannot campaign. The threat is not only from militants, but from mobs as well," the official said.
He said the identity and other details of most of the candidates have been kept a "closely guarded secret".
"The situation is such that the identity of most of the candidates cannot be revealed. There is a huge threat perception and we do not want to endanger lives," he said.
The official said though elaborate security arrangements have been put in place to ensure smooth, free and fair polls, providing security to each and every candidate was "out of the question".
"While the Centre has provided additional 400 companies of central paramilitary forces to secure the election process, security cannot be provided to such a large number of candidates. It is out of the question. We are doing our best to provide a secure environment to ensure the polls are smooth, free and fair," he said.
One of the candidates contesting from central Kashmir's Ganderbal district, said moving without security was "very risky".
"I cannot go to the people to seek votes without some security as it is very risky. You never know what can happen. Due to the atmosphere here everything is taking place stealthily," the candidate, who did not wish to be identified, said.
Many contestants have withdrawn from the process because of the threat to their lives, he said. Political parties are wary of stepping out in the open for campaigning and that is perhaps the reason why there has been no political rally or a related event so far here, he said.
"You know how the situation is. How is it possible for our candidates to campaign? Just Friday two workers of a political party (NC, which has boycotted the election) were killed in broad daylight. In such a situation, where there is no sense of security, how can we go out to seek votes," a senior Congress leader told PTI.
He said the atmosphere was not conducive for the polls in the state, but the Centre had "forced" the elections on the people.
"This is the most low profile election ever in the history of the state. We have not seen anything like this. The atmosphere is not conducive for the polls, but it was thrust on us by the Centre," he said.
The Congress leader said the secrecy maintained by the administration over the whole process has also cast a shadow over the exercise.
"The candidates cannot go out to campaign, the people do not know who their candidates are, the government is not informing them about anything. Then there was boycott by two main parties plus threat being issued, all this has cast a shadow over the elections," he said.
Umer Ahmad, a resident of Safakadal area in the city here, said many were not even aware when their wards were going to polls.
HOLIDAY IN POLL-BOUND AREAS ON ELECTION DAY
In connection with the municipal elections-2018 beginning 8 October, the government has declared public holiday in the poll-bound areas on the day of the election. "Public holiday shall be observed within the limits of the respective municipal corporations/councils/committees on account of municipal elections-2018, on the date of polls under the Negotiable Instrument Act-1881," said an order issued by the General Administration Department (GAD).
It said the holiday shall be observed only in the areas where the polling is to be held on that day.
According to the order special casual leave shall be granted to the employees who have to go to other areas for exercising their right to franchise, for which they will demonstrate proof of voting on return.