Kashmir is once more in the spotlight owing to the upcoming elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. It’s being discussed in national news and talk shows as the election that will either show a vote of confidence by the people upon the current PTI led government in Pakistan or in case of defeat, vote of no confidence by the people in light of its three years performance. The politicking is in full swing with leaders of both local and Pakistan based political parties campaigning as the self-styled “Daughters” and “Sons” of the land of Kashmir who have worked day and night for both the people of Azad Kashmir as well as for the liberation of the people of Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed if one were to go by the talk shows on private news channels or listen to the gatherings of local leaders one would think that the entire country is at a critical junction with regards to the people trust in the incumbent setup and somehow the Kashmir issue itself will be decided soon depending upon whosoever comes to power. The reality however is far from this perception and, as is the case mostly, largely disappointing. Hardly is the result of this election relevant to anyone outside the region itself and the only “Tabdeeli” it will bring to the people of this region is with regards to who will control the various patronage networks that exist within the state.
AJK elections are one of the most unique in the world as unlike elections elsewhere around the globe, there is no serious focus on a party manifesto whatsoever. Contrary to the national elections where each party presents a road map for the economy, administrative reforms and foreign policy for its voters at least in the media, there is no focus whatsoever on such activities here. Indeed one can be completely assured that neither the candidates nor the voters themselves have any idea about such topics nor would the majority even consider them important. Issues such as highlighting the Kashmir cause, removing the region’s dependency on government jobs, attracting private investment in sectors like tourism and minerals or any other such matters might as well be concepts written in ancient Mandarin when it comes to AJK politics.
Candidate and “Baradari” based politics dominate the Kashmiri political landscape and the entire focus is on which candidate is standing for the seat and which “Baradari” he belongs to. Indeed supporting ones clan when it comes to voting regardless of whether or not the candidate standing is a cheap copy of Indian Bollywood “Dons” is a matter of fact in the elections. The main expectation from every candidate is that he or she will increase the allocation of his or her baradari in the government sector by providing them a greater share of jobs and contracts the government has to offer. This clear cut and open nepotism is the yard stick by which a candidate is judged to be good or bad and hence it is no surprise that later on, state resources are either misused for personal benefits or devoured by their respective clans through government tenders. There is also a feeling of pride that a particular baradari ha more of its members in the government jobs and that this is somehow a collective achievement even though those benefitting from these arrangements is always a small but favored group of people.
Another unique and eerily familiar feature of AJK elections here is that they share a great similarity to elections in the Arab world as you can comfortably predict the winner even before the ballot is cast. This may not only be because of large scale fraud as blamed by the losing sides in every election, but because most of the voters in AJK vote for the candidate affiliated with the party whose government exists in the center. In the past 30 years this trend has cemented so firmly that the odds of there being an upset this time are equal to the odds of Pakistan beating India in a world cup game. It is completely irrelevant in most cases as to what was the performance of the incumbent candidate. Even if the incumbent candidate had carried out development work, improved healthcare or expanded educational facilities in the constituency, if not from the party in power in Islamabad odds are he or she will still lose. This is because voter loyalty isn’t a strong concept here and the hope of future reward from the winning party is largely what matters. It is thus no surprise that even though the party most likely to come into power in 2021 had once considered plans to revoke the special status of Kashmir and turn it into a province is the one gaining the most support in the region. This is because the main focus of the voters isn’t some far off ideal of the Kashmiris gaining self-determination but a much more closer to home goal of gaining government jobs and development funds. Indeed the Kashmir cause is merely a topic that is to be used in private and public speeches while the main focus remains on “home economics” so to speak.
In the end the 2021 election in AJK can be best summed up by the analogy of an India-Pakistan cricket world cup game. There is immense hype and expectation amongst the masses before the game and it is the talk of the town in media as well as public sphere. It is discussed as if it is a matter of national security with each and every aspect debated and analyzed. There is even hope that it will at the very least be a close contest and at times it is. But the end result is something that is already known by most except the most positive of fans. The game itself is often one sided, disappointing and soon forgotten until it all starts over after a few years.