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AJK Polls: Mainstream Parties Fail To Address Actual Issues

On July 25m around 3 million voters will decide the ruler of Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) for the next five years. While historically general elections in the mountainous region revolve around development, this time the entire focus is on the Kashmir conflict. This was inevitable after August 5, 2019 shook the region when India scrapped the special status of the region embroiling AJK in uncertainty.

AJK was established in 1947 by virtue of a historical mass intervention of the then state subjects against a monarchic rule. It has since been the concierge of the movement for self-determination of its indigenous people.

Over the last two years AJK has witnessed unprecedented mass protests for the besieged brethren on the other side of the Line of Control. This irked policymakers in Islamabad, and Prime Minister Imran Khan had to denounce any moves geared at dismantling the LoC.

Castigating the Pakistan government for not doing enough, the outgoing Prime Minister of AJK, Raja Farooq Haider Khan, has even gone to the extent of calling August 5 a result of a tacit understanding between India and Pakistan to achieve their economic and strategic objectives in the region. He has repeatedly warned that Islamabad’s new Kashmir policy is aimed at merging AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan. This has raised alarm bells on both sides of Kashmir.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, political parties in AJK have shaped their politics accordingly. The left-leaning PPP, the nationalist JKLF, and those on the right — especially Jamaat-i-Islami — have all stoutly criticised the current Kashmir policy of Pakistan government as inconsistent and unsustainable.

The ruling PTI hasn’t been able to galvanise any substantive support for its ‘burying the past’ policy, while Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari .have spoken vociferously against the apparent ideological shift over Kashmir. Even the all-weather peaceniks and liberal intelligentsia have asked Islamabad not to jump the gun on any dialogue with BJP’s India.

As a result this general election in AJK has become a battle between the proponents of new Kashmir policy and the old guard of Kashmiri politics that had largely operated in consensus with the state of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the common people, along with the challenges they face, appear to have missed the election bus.

Politics of conflict has served as a smokescreen to avoid recourse to development matters, with metalled roads, water supply schemes and sustainable employment not dominating narratives this time around. This has helped the candidates hide behind rhetoric to cover their own failures vis-à-vis governance.

There is a staggering 10.3% unemployment in the region. With roughly 4 million population, the public sector already accounts for the bulk of employment — around 84,000 people are employed by the state as against a mere 12,000 working in the private sector.

AJK always lacks capital to finance projects that could create employment as its revenue generation mechanisms are neither effective nor autonomous. For instance, even after the much heralded 13th Amendment in the Interim Constitution of AJK, it can’t collect corporate tax. This is despite the fact that 21 banks of Pakistan, with over 500 hundred branches and more than Rs300 billion in deposits, haven’t spent a penny in the way of corporate social responsibility.

Similarly, AJK produces around 2,300MW power as against a maximum local need of 400MW, and yet its power requirement is rarely fulfilled, especially in the summers. This is because the installed transmission capacity is only for 327MW.

All parties sideline these pressing problems. This has made it inconsequential as to which party controls the reins of power.

Ground reports suggest a fractured mandate with the ruling PTI being the single largest party. However, Maryam Nawaz has shifted the momentum in favour of the PML-N, as massive crowds have showed zealous support to her firebrand slogans and attacks on the PTI for abandoning Kashmir.

Even so, irrespective of the winner the cries for more autonomy on revenue generation are likely to grow along with demands for a local-led consensus on enhancing the representative character of AJK’s government.

Failure to address these challenges could create immense discord between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad in the near future. The relationship so far has stood the test of time as the communication channels and the sociopolitical linkages between the two sides have remained strong. However, Islamabad has to be more accommodating in dealing with the fact that August 5 has changed Kashmir for all times to come.

In the new political scenario, AJK has a major political role to play in fulfilling the spirit of its preamble. Islamabad is only expected to facilitate this. Castling will help neither the king’s case nor the peoples’.

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