Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Kashmiris on Saturday voted in the first local elections since the tumultuous abrogation of the Muslim-majority region’s limited autonomy last August, marking the resumption of a stalled political process.
Nearly six million voters across the disputed region’s 20 districts are eligible to elect 280 members of District Development Councils (DDC) who will have no power to legislate or amend laws in the region now directly run from New Delhi. Elections are also being held to fill vacant seats in panchayat (village council) and municipal bodies.
About 1,000 candidates from various political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are participating in the eight-phase DDC elections for what some Kashmiri analysts say is a symbolic exercise in a region with a deep distrust of India.
Voting is under way for the third phase on Friday. Nearly 52 percent of the people voted on Saturday while the second round held on Tuesday saw 49 percent voting amid tight security, with Pulwama district in south Kashmir registering less than seven percent polling – indicating a seeming lack of interest in the democratic process.
The region’s two bitter rivals – the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), have come together for the first time as part of People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) to contest the elections.
The NC, that has ruled most of the last seven decades in Kashmir, has provided three chief ministers while former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti belongs to the PDP. Her late father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed also served twice as the chief minister of the region, the last time in an alliance with the BJP.
The so-called PAGD alliance is contesting the election on a platform of restoration of Kashmir’s special status and statehood.
India’s Hindu nationalist government downgraded Kashmir’s statehood after stripping its special status on August 5 and jailed thousands, including most of the pro-Indian politicians fearing protests in the wake of its unprecedented decision.
Mufti, the former chief minister of the region who was imprisoned under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) last year and was released in October this year, told Al Jazeera that Kashmiri parties formed the alliance to not leave “space open for the BJP”.
“If we stay away from it (election) then those elements will occupy this space who will be detrimental to the interests of Jammu and Kashmir,” she said.
“It’s a political fight now for us. It’s not that BJP will last forever in rule and we will not resist. We have to struggle and resist, we can’t stop resisting,” Mufti, who last served as chief minister in a coalition with the BJP, said.
But the BJP has targeted pro-India parties that have dominated politics since the region’s controversial accession to India in 1947 on some of its conditions. New Delhi removed Article 370 that gave Kashmir a measure of autonomy, including its own flag, constitution and the right to make laws.
Aneesa Gul, 32, who is fighting on the BJP’s ticket in central Kashmir’s Chadoora village told Al Jazeera that her party’s “motive is only development and [to] erase unemployment and funding for women”.
“BJP will develop Kashmir better than Gujarat,” said Gul, who has been associated with the BJP since 2014. “The gang made by other politicians (has) cheated Kashmir for 70 years through their rule. They cannot fool people any more. We have to develop Kashmir.”
Zahoor Ahmad from Theed village in the outskirts of Srinagar, told Al Jazeera he “wants to fight to gain power and work for the betterment of youth” in his locality.
“The politics and power has always been held by old people and they didn’t benefit us in any way. We are young and we hope to help young people,” said Ahmad, 32, who is running as an independent.
Suhail Bukhari, a former journalist who is running with the PAGD coalition, accused the region’s New Delhi-run administration of hindering campaign activities of his alliance.
“There have been many instances where the candidates of alliance have been hindered and restricted and others are being facilitated,” said Bukhari who is contesting a seat in Sangrama village, Baramulla district.
“These elections pose a larger political question for Jammu and Kashmir because of the backdrop of the August 5 changes, which was unconstitutional and undemocratic,” he said.
Noor Ahmad Baba, a political analyst based in the region told Al Jazeera that the BJP wants “to change the nature of politics in Kashmir”.
“The situation does not seem to be normal. Everything is governed by Delhi and it is regulating and managing the affairs of the region. The BJP seems to have its own long-term programme for changing the nature of politics in Kashmir. After it removed article 370 last year, there is no local government this time,” he said.
Baba said the political structure was “completely disrupted” by last year’s events.
“People who represented mainstream politics in Kashmir have not been happy and were not taken on board. For most time they remained under restrictions, they have taken a different position, there is a big polarisation,” he said.
The election is significant for both New Delhi as well as the region’s politicians. While the elections will help New Delhi to restart the political process in Kashmir, the region’s political leaders will use the election to make a comeback.
Siddiq Wahid, a political analyst and academic, told al Jazeera that the governing BJP’s agenda is to “show that things are normal in Kashmir” through the elections.
Wahid said that the election has “no credibility because it bypasses institutions and it creates new institutions when you don’t have democratically elected government in place. I don’t think they are very significant elections, though BJP is trying to make it one.”
Thousands of troops have been deployed in addition to the more than half million forces already stationed in Kashmir, to ensure smooth conduct during the elections, as rebels continue to carry out attacks.
KK Sharma, the election commissioner overseeing the polls, in an interview with Al Jazeera defended the opposition allegations, saying the government measures were to ensure candidates’ safety.
Terming the elections as “significant and historic for Kashmir”, Sharma said they were “very democratically contested elections.”