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Making sense of Srinagar’s bypoll fiasco

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-04-2017 Nikhil Raymond Puri

On 9 April, 1,261,395 electors were invited to decide which political candidate—the National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah or the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP’s) Nazir Ahmad Khan—would occupy the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat, left vacant after Tariq Hameed Karra resigned last September. That Farooq Abdullah won the contest was never more than a side note. The focus instead has been on the astonishing fact that only 7% of the electorate turned out to vote. Responding to the abysmal turnout, Farooq Abdullah urged Indians to “wake up, before it is too late”. Former Union home minister P. Chidambaram similarly joined the chorus of alarmist voices, claiming that “the alienation of the people of the Kashmir Valley is nearly complete” and that India is “on the brink of losing Kashmir”.

Such warnings view the bypoll as a sign that the Valley is spiralling out of control. But that isn’t the right lesson to draw. Yes, disaffection, restlessness, and secessionist sentiment are widespread in Kashmir, but they have been for a long time. The drop in turnout this time around was caused by two factors: an expected dip in enthusiasm that’s characteristic of bypolls, and targeted violence. These variables proved especially disruptive as they interacted with peculiar patterns of electoral representation that have prevailed in the constituency for at least three election cycles.

Candidates in the Valley have grown accustomed to a low baseline turnout, showing little discomfort with the associated lack of legitimacy. The quality of coming to power with meagre electoral backing has characterized all recent occupants of the Srinagar seat. When Karra entered the Lok Sabha on a PDP ticket in 2014, he did so with only 13% of the electorate behind him. Farooq Abdullah represented a similarly small proportion of the constituency’s registered voters when he won the parliamentary seat in 2009. Five years earlier, his son Omar Abdullah entered the Lok Sabha representing only 9% of the seat’s electorate. The constituency’s representatives have clearly been anything but representative.

Even by these low standards, however, Farooq Abdullah has set himself apart. He will enter the Lok Sabha as its least representative member by far, having received votes from less than 4% of the constituency’s electorate.

One factor that caused the lower than usual turnout was the relative futility of the exercise. Voters were expected to elect a representative for a two-year term, without any opportunity to alter the make-up of the state or Central governments.

Indeed, low turnout is a hallmark of by-elections across the country, with voter participation reducing—on average by 10 percentage points—in 10 of the 12 Lok Sabha constituencies where bypolls have been held since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. When regular turnout is near the national average of 66%, such a drop is hardly noticeable. In the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency—where turnout has not exceeded 26% since 2004—a large dip in enthusiasm effectively deprives the winning candidate of any claim to legitimacy.

Another aspect of electoral representation underlying the pronounced drop in turnout is the tendency of the constituency’s winning candidates to disproportionately draw their support from Budgam and Ganderbal districts while neglecting Srinagar district. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Srinagar district accounted for over 50% of the constituency’s electorate but only provided 23% of the winner’s votes. Conversely, the winning candidate drew more than 55% of his support from Budgam district (which held 36% of the electorate) and roughly 22% of his support from Ganderbal district (home to 13% of the constituency’s registered voters). This tendency of over-representing Budgam and Ganderbal at Srinagar’s expense was also apparent when Farooq Abdullah drew 77% of his support from Budgam and Ganderbal in 2009 and Omar Abdullah carried the seat in 2004 with 79% of his supporters resident in the two districts.

This bypoll clearly highlighted the risk of overinvesting in Budgam district, where voting day was severely disrupted by violent protests targeting polling stations, election staff, and security personnel. By the time polling ended, seven civilians in the district had been killed by security forces, 70% of polling staff had abandoned their booths, and nearly 200 of the district’s 547 polling stations had no votes cast at all. Although voters in 38 of the most violence-affected parts of the district were given an opportunity to vote again on 13 April, few were willing to take any chances. In the end, Budgam underperformed and took the entire constituency down with it.

Assuming adequate security arrangements are in place, one can reasonably expect turnout in the 2019 general election to default to the customary range of 18-26%. But that is no achievement. To make future elections less vulnerable to violence and dips in enthusiasm, candidates must expand and more equitably spread their electoral appeal across the constituency. In other words, it is imperative that they make themselves more palatable in boycott-prone Srinagar district.

For this to happen, political contenders in the constituency must be allowed to fiercely oppose the policies of the Central government that are locally unpopular and to represent the sentiments of even their non-voting constituents in the hope that votes may follow. Farooq Abdullah’s recent willingness to articulate the stone pelter’s perspective is merely one step in this direction.

Nikhil Raymond Puri is a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

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