The coming local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir could be an opportunity to open a new political dialogue in the Union Territory, particularly on the question of restoring its statehood. In the first democratic exercise since the Centre revoked J&Ks special status and reorganised it into two UTs in August 2019, Panchayati Raj elections are scheduled over eight phases beginning November 28. For the first time, this part of India will have the entire 73rd Constitutional Amendment coming into operation. In October, the UT administration amended the Panchayati Raj Act, providing for District Development Councils (DDC) in each district, and establishing the three-tier PR structure. Alongside the election of 280 DDC members, by-elections for around 12,000 panchayat seats and over 230 urban body seats will also take place. Peaceful, participatory election in a troubled region can be the most forceful demonstration of the resilience of Indian democracy. It is for this reason that elections are a target for those who believe that only violence can achieve popular aspirations in Kashmir. Four JeM militants who were planning a terror attack in the Valley to disrupt the elections and sow chaos were neutralised last week.
A violence-free election is necessary, but not sufficient for a vibrant democracy. The BJPs strident political posturing, portraying all its political opponents as anti-national and separatist might be electorally useful for it in the Jammu region but is harmful for the national integration that it professes. When such statements come from the Home Minister of India, it is even more counterproductive. Choices before the people of J&K must not be framed as a binary of macabre violence of Islamist separatism and dehumanising submission of their cultural identity to authoritarian ultranationalism. There are other viable possibilities for J&Ks progressive, respectful and accommodative association with the rest of India, which preserve national integrity and honour the regions identity. A coalition of regional parties including the PDP and the National Conference, once the BJPs allies, and the CPI(M), under the banner of Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, has made the restoration of J&Ks special status and its statehood central to its politics. The alliance leaders have complained about restrictions on their campaigning. The Congress, which was in touch with the alliance earlier, has now snapped its ties with it. The government must encourage the widest voter participation, the clearest route to this being through an unrestrained and freewheeling campaign that mobilises and expresses the whole range of public opinion. All that might be said would not be acceptable or desirable. But meaningful dialogue is essential, and elections are the best way to open up peaceful possibilities.