Dec 26, 2008

India - Democracy Triumphs

“We have taken a risk,” Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami said in October when he announced the decision to hold elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly. The ‘risk’ taken by the Election Commission and the political parties in the fray has paid off handsomely. The people of the State decisively dispelled fears, voiced by an assortment of political and professional naysayers, that the elections would be characterised by poor participation and murderous levels of violence. On the first count, voter turnout in the 87 Assembly constituencies rose dramatically from 43 per cent in 2002 to around 62 per cent — slightly higher than the national average, which hovers around 60 per cent. Without dispute, the most heartening signal came from the Kashmir Valley, where voter turnout was 55 per cent compared with 29.5 per cent in 2002. Even in Srinagar, the heartland of J&K’s Islamist-led secessionist movement, voter turnout quadrupled from a pathetic 5.06 per cent in 2002 to 21 per cent in 2008. As for the second count, 63 people were killed and 84 injured in 114 incidents of terrorist violence in 2002. This time there were 21 incidents of violence during the campaign period — not all of them directly election-related — resulting in five fatalities. While the 1996 elections were marred by allegations that Indian troops had coerced voters to exercise their franchise, and the 2002 elections saw jihadist groups terrorise large sections of the electorate, there were no serious complaints this time.

Read against the ugly, communally charged violence that tore into J&K’s social fabric this summer — and led to the collapse of the Congress-People’s Democratic Party coalition government — these results are all the more remarkable. Many in and outside the State believed the rioting provoked by the grant of land-use rights to the Shri Amarnath-ji Shrine Board ruled out elections for the conceivable future. Indeed not a few influential voices, claiming that the violence reflected a popular rejection of the idea of India, threw their weight behind calls for Kashmiri independence. In the event, the people of J&K have left no doubt that they see in India’s democracy, however imperfect, the best means to address the multiple problems they face. From the outset, this newspaper has editorially argued that free and fair elections would do more to defuse the crisis than the regrettable practice of seeking backdoor deals with forces claiming to represent the State’s people. India’s exemplary Election Commission, Governor N.N. Vohra, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, the State government’s officials and, above all, the people of Jammu and Kashmir deserve unreserved applause for enabling democracy to triumph amidst the most difficult circumstances imaginable. When a new Chief Minister takes office in the New Year, he or she must move rapidly to deliver clear-minded, honest governance — thus freeing the State from the politics of competitive chauvinism that led it to the edge of the abyss this summer.

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