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Above: Home Minister Amit Shah at a meet with representatives from the Valley, in New Delhi/Photo: UNI

In a bid to woo the grassroots functionaries who work in a hostile, militancy-infested environment, the centre has given them some sops. But will this be enough to win the hearts of the people?

By Pushp Saraf

Can the proposed insurance cover of Rs 4 lakh for each panch and sarpanch in J&K achieve its intended objective in the absence of a proper political environment? On the face of it, it is a good idea to provide an incentive to grassroots functionaries to step out in a militancy-infested milieu to discharge their responsibilities. Besides facing risks to their lives in the Valley, they also encounter fresh tension in the hills of Jammu in the wake of the Union government’s August 5 decision to abolish the state’s special status and bifurcate it into two Union Territories.

How are they expected to deliver results in isolation when political activity has virtually come to a halt after the detention of all popular and important mainstream leaders?

The government’s calculation may be that it can turn the tide through the panches and sarpanches, given their large numbers and reach. It is not entirely misplaced. Both are in direct touch with their small electorate, personally knowing everyone in their wards. That makes them effective bridges between the government’s policies and welfare schemes and the masses at large. This is an enviable role provided that there is a normal situation. This is a big “if” as far as Kashmir Valley is concerned. This alone can determine the success or failure of any experiment that the government undertakes now onwards, including using insurance cover as a tonic to restore peace.

The Valley has been under unprecedented lockdown and communications blockade for nearly two months in protest against the abrogation of the state’s special status and bifurcation. Panches too are feeling the pinch. One young sarpanch, Zubaiur Butt from Harwan on the outskirts of Srinagar, has gone on record pointing to the difficulties being faced by the masses because of restrictions on movement and communication as a result of which the supply of essential items is also affected. Privately, they admit, they are recipients of the people’s fury.

The BJP, as the ruling party, needs a buffer. It is seriously handicapped because it has no presence in the Valley and has further alienated itself by subjecting other mainstream parties to ignominy with leaders of the National Conference (NC), People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and even the Congress, which has some pockets of influence, in detention. Actually, the trust deficit between the BJP and the local population is complete and seemingly unbridgeable at the moment. The BJP’s obvious calculation is that by roping in panches and sarpanches, it can create an instrumentality to act on its behalf. In the process, it has asserted on numerous occasions that funds for development would not be a problem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has said in Maharashtra on September 19 and to a Kashmiri Pandit delegation in Houston on September 22: “…We have to build a Naya (New) Kashmir.  We have to once again build a paradise…”

“Naya Kashmir” has a serious connotation in the context of united J&K. It is the title of a manifesto that represents the policy and programmes of the NC, the premier political outfit of the state, for creating a welfare state with a constitutional democracy and a detailed economic plan. Modi’s “Naya Kashmir” does not make any reference to its historical context and, going by his government’s actions and utterances so far, it also has a development component and seeks to break new ground with the help of outside investors.

It was on September 19 that an unnamed Union home ministry official was widely quoted as saying that they “are examining the proposal to provide insurance cover of Rs 4 lakh to all panches and sarpanches in J&K”.  There were no reasons to disbelieve this as on September 3, a delegation of sarpanches had met Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi and come back claiming that they had been given an assurance of insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh each for them and panches. This was in addition to significantly enhanced monthly emoluments for them and compensation for construction work carried out by panchayats as they had to function in the face of terrorist threats.

It was Shah’s first meeting with them after scrapping of the state’s special status. Shah called them “leaders” of the state. He said it would be their responsibility to ensure that the benefits of various government schemes reached the correct beneficiaries and that an atmosphere of peace and prosperity was maintained. He informed them that “henceforth” the provisions of the 73rd  constitutional amendment (imparting “certainty, continuity and strength” to panchayati raj institutions providing, among other things, direct elections “at all levels” and prescribing a detailed procedure for constituting them) and 74th amendment (ensuring regular elections and defining devolution of powers and functions of municipal bodies to perform effectively as vibrant democratic units of self-government) would be applicable to J&K and “this would serve to empower local governance and Panchayati Raj institutions”.

Indeed, it would be a major breakthrough if the BJP is able to fruitfully utilise panches and sarpanches and fill the wide political vacuum it ironically created. Panches who were elected towards the end of 2018 have so far not been able to fill this gap in the Valley. Their predicament was best highlighted by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora when he announced the election schedule for the last Lok Sabha polls at a press conference in Delhi on March 10 this year. Asked why the Commission was not declaring the delayed assembly elections in J&K, Arora, without beating about the bush, referred to security constraints. He said many candidates who had participated in panchayat and urban bodies elections, held “long ago” (in October and December 2018, respectively) were still staying in government guest houses “at government expense”, driving home the point about security threat to them. His argument was that with at least “eight candidates” expected to figure in each assembly constituency, a greater mobilisation of forces would be required. This was not possible given their deployment for the parliamentary elections. The NC and the PDP had boycotted last year’s civic bodies’ polls demanding that the central government clarify its stance on Article 35-A protecting the special privileges of permanent residents of the state while also defining them.

The government has done away with not only Article 35-A but also knocked the teeth out of Article 370 that guaranteed J&K’s special status, snapping all links with the regional outfits at least for the time being.

The BJP may find that it is actually lost in a maze of its own making. The insurance cover in itself may not be enough and that perhaps explains why Shah has said that security cover would be considered wherever necessary. Some panches and sarpanches have lost their lives for defying militants’ diktats to keep off the polls. A few have resigned even after victories in the wake of fresh threats. Undoubtedly, an electorate turnout of 41.3 percent in 10  districts in the 2018 panchayat polls was impressive considering the overall situation in the Valley. This figure, however, camouflages the reality that in a majority of the wards, there was no candidate or only one candidate winning unopposed.

In the prevailing scenario, the area of popular disenchantment has grown beyond the Valley and covers the mountainous districts of the Jammu region, albeit not with the same intensity yet.  Kashmir accounts for 18,740 panches in 2,135 halqas (each halqa consists of a number of wards which elect a panch each) of a total of 35,029 panches and 4,483 panchayat halqas in 316 blocks in the state.  It is a huge number for which insurance cover as a security may be the only viable option for the government.

In 2018, a vast part of the south of the Valley was influenced by the boycott call of militants and separatists and non-participation of the NC and the PDP. Most of the polling had taken place in the north where the People’s Conference of Sajjad Lone, younger son of the slain charismatic leader Abdul Ghani Lone, then an ally of the BJP, has a sizable presence. But Sajjad himself is under detention and his party is one of the two, the other being the NC, which has challenged the presidential order nullifying the state’s special status and bifurcating it in the Supreme Court. In fact, he was one of the main participants in an all-party meeting presided over by NC stalwart Farooq Abdullah, at present arrested under the Public Safety Act, where they had resolved to stand united in their “struggle to safeguard the special status of Kashmir” before the government struck.

Thus, for the BJP, the ground for grassroots’ support has shrunk. The best course for the party may be to search within and find a meeting ground between its ideological commitment and hurt local sentiment.

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