Health officials give masks to voters outside a voting booth in Kashmir on December 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto

The peaceful completion of elections to 20 district development councils in Jammu & Kashmir is being portrayed as a first step towards restoring democracy in the contested area.

The scrapping on August 5, 2019, of the region’s special status under Article 370 meant the state came under New Delhi’s central rule.

Three million people across Jammu & Kashmir voted to elect 280 candidates from a field of 2,178 with a 51.4% turnout in recent violence-free polls. For the people there, it was the first step towards a return to democracy and interacting with their own representatives instead of an impersonal bureaucracy.

The election also sends a signal to the world, dispelling the impression that the whole area was still under curfew with sharply curtailed freedoms.

Still, since the removal of its special status by the parliament, large parts of the Kashmir valley remained under curfew with internet services suspended until the pandemic broke in March and confined people indoors again. Life is close to normal now.

The poll also gives the government evidence to rebuff allegations of repression by its neighbor Pakistan. The election of public representatives also downgrades the role that could be played by terrorists in influencing local bodies in the future.

The election paves the way for direct interaction between the districts and the Home Ministry for developmental plans and greater transparency and accountability. The polls could also encourage the government to take the next step of convening the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly of lawmakers after holding the next level of elections.

The latest polls were conducted using a ballot paper and not electronic voting machines, which earned a bad name in earlier elections after allegations by some candidates of manipulation and misuse by the parties in power. All the main elements of the process were recorded on video.

Yet the political parties read different messages in the voting pattern.

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a two-month-old coalition of state-level parties seeking the restoration of the Article 370 special status and full statehood, led with 110 seats, compared with 75 by the Bharatiya Janata Party, with counting still to be completed.

The PAGD comprises the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference, Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), J&K People’s Conference and Awami National Conference, among other smaller parties.

An Indian soldier walks past health officials at a voting booth during elections in Ganderbal District in Indian-administered Kashmir. Photo: AFP/Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto

The Indian National Congress initially lent it moral support but declined to join the alliance because of its impact on voters elsewhere in the country.

The BJP called it a victory.

“This is a victory of hope, democracy and a victory for the locals,’’ Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

With a count of 487,000, the BJP had more votes than the combined count of the National Conference’s 282,500, the PDP’s 57,789 and the Indian National Congress, which had 140,000, he said.

The BJP could govern at least six districts, most of them in the Hindu majority Jammu region. The Gupkar alliance will govern nine or more, mainly from the Muslim majority Kashmir and some from Jammu too. The voting pattern also reflects a difference in preferences between Kashmir and Jammu.

The remaining five districts would depend on the inclination of a large number of independent candidates.

“The trends that have emerged in the polls are very encouraging for the Gupkar Alliance,” tweeted Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister and vice-president of the National Conference.

“The BJP made this election a prestige issue about Article 370 and J&K special status. The message is clear that the people don’t accept the removal of Article 370,” Abdullah said in a television interview.

Omar’s father Farooq Abdullah and grandfather Sheikh Abdullah were chief ministers of the state in earlier decades. Omar was a minister under the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led BJP government in 2001-2002, while Farooq was a minister in the Manmohan Singh government from 2009 to 2014.

“Undeterred by the denial of democratic rights, the voters of the Kashmir valley have firmly rejected the BJP and its misguided Kashmir policy. I compliment the voters for their courage and resolve,” said P Chidambaram, a Congress leader and former finance minister.

“Even in the Jammu region, a significant number of voters have rejected the divisive and polarizing politics of the BJP. Both the Congress and the Gupkar Alliance have stood up to the BJP and may win as many seats as the BJP. That is a good sign.”

The removal of Article 370 and the construction of the Lord Ram temple in Ayodhya were among the permanent items on the BJP’s agenda since its formation in April 1980.

The BJP believes enabling citizens to acquire property in Jammu & Kashmir will formally integrate the state with the rest of India and eliminate discriminatory treatment.