The first phase of the District Development Council (DDC) election, to be held over eight phases, in Jammu and Kashmir started today, 28 November, amid tight security.
On Srinagar outskirts, Harwan and Dhara are two constituencies that have traditionally voted for the National Conference (NC). However, the turnout was initially dull in the morning, it picked up in the later half with Srinagar district recording 33.76 percent voter turnout.
The regional parties have come together under the banner of the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), their candidate was the NC’s Ali Mohammad Rather from Harwan.
Known in the constituency as a “lucky champion”, Rather is a serving sarpanch. His daughter, Asma Jan, had been out in the streets since 8 am to make sure their voter base gets him past the line.
Jan herself last voted in panchayat elections and it was her third time voting in an election. “Panchayat and now DDC, I will be voting for him not just because of my relation to him, but because he’s an honorable man who gets work done,” she said.
As many as 1,475 candidates were in the fray for the first phase of the polls, the first to be held after the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomy last August. A total of 172 candidates contested from the Kashmir Valley while 296 were in the fray from Jammu, as per officials.
It is also the first time district level elections are being held in the erstwhile state. The DDC as a new body of governance will replace the District Planning and Development Council and its elected members will hold office for a term of five years.
The elections are a litmus test for both, the People’s Alliance as well as the BJP and its potential allies in the future. The People’s Alliance has already accused the BJP of scuttling their efforts during the campaigning.
Local residents of Theed, an area which falls within the Harwan constituency, claimed that their polling booth was shifted last night at 10 pm without any prior notice by officials. “Someone is playing dirty tricks and we know that,” said Jan. “The last polling booth was in the immediate vicinity of the voters but now it’s one kilometer away.”
The police and paramilitary personnel present on that polling booth, however, assured that it was done due to an assessment of security threats and that it was not uncommon to change booths at the last minute given the situation.
The overall security situation in the polling areas was under control according to Inspector General, Central Reserve Police Force for Srinagar Sector, Charu Sinha. Speaking to the press near one of the polling booths she said the polling was, “smooth and with good participation from the people.”
In the upper areas of Harwan falls the Dhara constituency where residents of Fakir Gujri, a hamlet dominated by the Gujjar community, participated in large numbers.
Letha Kohli, in his late 90s, sat outside a polling booth, raising his index finger, he showed the indelible ink that polling officials apply once a voter has cast their vote. “I have been voting for the last sixty years, and it has always been for the National Conference, but this time I have voted for an independent candidate,” he said, adding that he hoped that Fakir Gujri would see better health infrastructure as well as road connectivity.
Affirming to the 95-year old, Raj Mohammad, currently the sarpanch of Fakir Gujri, said: “I am not contesting these elections but I am fully committed in supporting the ones that are. Irrespective of who wins, I believe they will take our concerns straight to the higher ups and will actually lead to some development in our area.”
The independent candidates who are contesting elections for the first time seem to be making this their voting plank. A plank also sought to be promoted by the BJP as it attempts to wean J-K politics off the popular sentiment, strictly limited to the public’s development needs.
Mohammad Shaban, an independent candidate who is contesting one of the Dhara seats, said that despite having no prior political experience before this, he wanted to help residents of the “severely underdeveloped” area. Roads, uninterrupted power and better healthcare facilities, all are on his manifesto.
After casting his own vote, he stood outside the polling booths welcoming neighbors and their family members. Thanking them for their votes he moved from one herd of people to the other thanking them for their support. “I believe having another layer of governance has added to the fact that our issues can be met. I just want people to be benefitted by me. I want to help everyone with the best of my abilities.”
Meanwhile in Keller, a constituency in South Kashmir’s Shopian district, also saw moderate voter turnout during the day. Some of the voters said by having independent candidates they feel they have ears that will listen to them. “If we have our own people, who know our mohalla, they would know the root of the problem,” said Ghulam Nabi Khanday, a local. He further added, “We are an extremely poor area, and we need more and more development. Other bigger issues can wait while we sort the basics first.”
Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal also had elections in Gund area. For the voters, the importance of these elections lies with the absence of local representatives for them. “There is no minister here who will help us, we have no Member Legislative Assembly since so long, at least these elections will give us someone who will bring our area some development,” he further said, “having independent candidates who are educated and young will mean that what the panchayats couldn’t do, our news line of leaders will do.”
Local people who will bring development is a nice selling point for many in these elections as these local body elections look to employ those with a know-how of the local. With the first phase over, there are still seven to go before the winners are announced.