On June 26, the people of “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) will elect a new Assembly. Speaking at a recent international conference on Kashmir in the PoK capital Muzaffarabad, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, declared that the election would be “free and fair.”
To the participants from Jammu and Kashmir, including this correspondent, Mr. Gilani’s assurance reminded us of a similar one given by former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. On August 15, 2002, he declared from the ramparts of the Red Fort that elections to the Assembly would be conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner. The same promise was given by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ahead of 2008 Assembly elections.
Normally there should not be a need to give such assurances. But as with New Delhi’s role in the Jammu and Kashmir elections, particularly those held before 2002, Islamabad’s role in the PoK elections has always been viewed with suspicion. And in PoK, it’s not just the ruling political party in Pakistan — the Army too is believed to have a major say in “choosing” the government and the candidate for “Prime Minister.” In the past three years, PoK has seen three Prime Ministers succeeding each other, mainly due to differences within the Muslim Conference, the ruling party. But Islamabad’s “choice” is important.
The current Prime Minister Sardar Attique Khan was the frontrunner for the post in 2001 but could not make it due to a lack of support from then President Pervez Musharraf and the Army. Sikandar Hayat Khan was the chosen one then. Later, it was Sardar Yaqoob Khan. In between, Raja Farooq Haider, known for advocating more powers for the Prime Minister succeeded him but could not survive for more than nine months.
While the political parties are not above manoeuvring Pakistan’s ruling establishment to retain power, there is little confidence that the elections in PoK will be free or fair. Observers said Prime Minister Gilani was simply trying to offer a justification in advance for the “likelihood” of his People’s Party coming to power in PoK.
“By saying so, he wanted to clear the air that even if the PPP returns to power it would be outcome of a free and fair process,” said an analyst in Muzaffarabad. Islamabad also retains the right to select the head of PoK’s government, who is designated as Prime Minister.
Nawaz Sharif’s pledge
Interestingly, former Prime Minister of Pakistan and head of Pakistan Muslim League (N) Nawaz Sharif has pledged to the people of PoK that his party would rid them of “military democracy.”
“PML-N would establish an exemplary democracy in the State by providing the people their due rights, justice, development and prosperity. The PML-N AJK would restore people’s right to rule, end corruption and plundering and establish good governance,” Pakistan’s leading daily The Nation quoted him as saying in a report headlined “PML-N to rid AJK of ‘military democracy.”
In Jammu and Kashmir too, elections have always been questioned. Before the elections in 2002 and 2008, and bar the one in 1977, people’s confidence in the entire process had taken a beating. The common refrain was that New Delhi either “manipulated or managed” the elections to “select” the men of its choice.
It was such an election in 1987 that turned the tide in Kashmir, enabling an armed militant struggle to occupy the political space. Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin who fought those elections as Mohammad Yousuf Shah, told this writer “by large-scale rigging in those elections, New Delhi performed the last rites of democracy in Kashmir.”
It is another matter that the confidence deficit in the political system in PoK has not pushed the people towards militancy even though the issues causing discontent are eerily similar.
In Jammu and Kashmir, demands for restoration of greater autonomy are loudly voiced by parties like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which describes it as “self-rule.”
These demands have an echo in PoK, where — if the political grapevine is to be believed — the ouster of Raja Farooq Haider as the Prime Minister was not purely because he lost confidence in the house but “manipulated” by Islamabad as he had turned more vocal in his demands for empowering his office. Haider had demanded that the Kashmir Council, headed by the Pakistan Prime Minister should not overrule the authority of the PoK government, particularly in financial matters. A general grievance is that PoK does not get an equal share in federal taxes nor has there been an equal share and representation in Pakistan’s National Finance Commission Award.
As in Jammu and Kashmir, the tussle over water resources in PoK is another contentious issue that bedevils its relations with the Centre, with PoK demanding its share in the profits from hydel power generated from the region. A long-standing wrangle over the Mangla dam has found new voice with the demand that PoK should get royalties just as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is being duly compensated from the Tarbela dam.
People in PoK are concerned also about two more power projects being constructed by Chinese companies on the Neelum-Jhelum confluence and Kohala with a capacity of over 2,000 MW each. They fear that what they see as their just compensation will be looted from them. Clearly, in PoK as in J&K, despite elections being held regularly, there is a feeling of being ridden roughshod by the Centre. Even if political relations between New Delhi and Srinagar are substantially different from those between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), political discontent clearly revolves around similar issues, linked to “control” exerted by the respective capital cities and the demand for greater autonomy.