Chief Minister’s Contest

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Despite a PDP stronghold, Islamabad is not a cakewalk for J&K’s chief minister Ms Mehbooba Mufti this time around. With sulking mood, lurking breach and gawking indifference gripping the town, the summer contest is bound to hawk PDP chief’s political weight in her hometown, reports Bilal Handoo

Mehbooba-during-poll-campaign-in-Islamabad

Ms Mehbooba during by-poll campaign in Islamabad.

That vintage poll cry—“I understand your pain”—is no more resounding in Islamabad heading for by-polls on June 22. The giant contester, Ms Mehbooba Mufti, is gingerly back with a new poll cry: “I want to carry forward my father’s mission and vision.” Between this apparent shift to engage voters, the Peoples Democratic Party’s matriarch and the J&K’s sitting chief minister is seeking mandate to retain her father’s seat.

Down in Srinagar, the poll hawkers, fresh from their Islamabad sojourn, are terming Ms Mufti’s election campaign a “lacklustre show” — she put up ever since joining politics two decades ago when she trended as a “nurse of people’s wounds”. With situational shift and perceptive clash, the Fairview’s new chief isn’t employing the old tactics to woo the voters.

It is a different emotive appeal now — not promising people emancipation from Ikhwan or security throes, but to uphold her father’s mission.

“My father ruled under tremendous pressure during his ten months in power,” she told a small gathering during her first election campaigning in Islamabad. “I want to fulfil my late father’s dream.” But with altered ground equations, the 57-year-old chief minister is staring at odd parameters now existing in her supposed stronghold.

As sun is getting hot over the Islamabad, the political heaviness on ground is only getting intense. In this backdrop, Ms Mufti is facing the much-trended backlash over her handshake with “anti-Kashmir” BJP. Despite clarifying time and again that how her father took an unpopular decision keeping massive mandate of Jammu in view, she has apparently failed to strike an accord around. But that barely prevents her reiterating her father’s resolve to usher Jammu and Kashmir “into an era of peace, stability and prosperity”.

After being sworn-in as J&K chief minister on April 04 this year, Mehbooba was to be elected to either of the houses of the bicameral legislature within six months. This mandatory clause makes her victory must from Islamabad where she is pitted against seven other contenders.

What otherwise seems a ‘sure bet’ for the sitting chief minister has become a slight challenging after a poll boycott call was announced by the defiant Syed Ali Geelani. The three recent militant strikes in the belt have further threatened to impact the overall franchise enterprise.

PDP having a “sizeable presence” on the ground will be at receiving end in case of general boycott, the self-styled pollsters have started predicting. And with people busy fasting and tilling farms presently under the scorching sun, the poll percentage might turn out to be even more dismal.

Then, there is an imminent “troublemaking” factor feared by police and allied agencies, which can further enforce the boycott call and end up costing dear to the ruling party. But to prevent resurrection of ‘militant mood’ in the town on polling day, the state has decided to beef up reinforcements. But even then, the outsized outlook remains defiant around, forcing authorities to declare 52 of 102 polling stations as ‘hypersensitive’.

“These stations fall in militancy and stone-pelting zones,” says a police officer posted in Islamabad. “Rest have been declared as ‘sensitive’ as they are known to harbour anti-establishment sentiments.” This tagging makes the entire constituency as a ‘rebel’, thus leaving not a single polling station under ‘normal’ category in Mehbooba’s backyard.

Though the security apparatus looks upbeat, the town is still showing signs of reluctance to vote for ‘the daughter’ contesting to retain her father’s seat that fell vacant on January 7 after Mufti M Sayeed died in AIIMS. Mehbooba’s victory will be a hattrick for Muftis from Islamabad seat. Her father won it twice, in 2008 and 2014.

Last time, when late Mufti was here, he sought votes to stop BJP’s Kashmir forays. Now, his daughter, a BJP ally, is at the centre of ‘perceptive war’ running amok in Islamabad, post PDP-BJP embrace. Amid this sulking mood, Mehbooba is also seeking votes to uphold the political legitimacy of her alliance.

After filing her nomination papers, Mehbooba turned up in Islamabad on June 11 to take her poll campaign to nearly 15 villages. She reiterated everywhere upholding her father’s dream. The late Mufti’s first-born Mehbooba had first visited these villages two decades ago.

In 1996, she had freshly agreed to her father’s proposal to jump into politics. “I joined politics to please my father,” she would later say. For the law graduate whose marital life had taken an unpleasant turn, the drive through dilapidated roads of south Kashmir to seek mandate was no different, as it is now.

Then villagers, like today, didn’t show pressing urge for elections. But the young Mehbooba had her own style to create her own constituency in ‘desolated’ Islamabad parts. “Mufti Sahib and I understand your problems and sufferings,” she would tell the freaked out simpletons. “We can help you get better roads, water supply and jobs for your children. Please vote for us.”

Sporting her signature ‘Abhaya’ and headscarf, Mehbooba would thoughtfully skip mentioning gun and gunmen, thus making her detractors speculate: she is indeed Mufti’s reincarnation. Instead, she would raise commoners’ hopes for a better life and normalcy—something she is still doing. With the result, she won her first election from Bijbehara in 1996.

That was a different Mehbooba Mufti, who is nowhere to be seen today. Twenty years later, she is facing an awkward situation back home. “Unlike 1996,” says Ali Mohammad, a townsman, “Mehbooba is now suffering from perceptive hate triggered by RSS factor.”

This puts her political acumen at greater test in the by-polls, already declared as a “referendum” on Ms Mufti and her party. Not only her victory is mandatory for sustaining her alliance, but also equally significant for BJP-ruled Delhi having stake-holding in her local government.

Perhaps that’s why one BJP leader lately talked about Confidence Building Measures being put in place. His claims found echo in the opposition leader Omar Abdullah assertions: ration depots across Islamabad are being fattened at the cost of the entire Kashmir. Mehbooba’s archenemy even stated that the entire bureaucratic apparatus is busy overseeing the sitting chief minister’s victory in Islamabad. “But I still believe,” Omar told a news channel, “Islamabad knows how PDP is taking Nagpur’s dictations and for that, she will face voters’ ire.”

Omar might be dishing out an old political harangue, but cold vibes coming from the “heart of south Kashmir” makes it a fitting case for PDP: what goes around comes around.

Amid this indifference, the PDP supporters are busy doing the usual. With most of them busy wooing the voters, allegations of buying loyalties are also doing rounds. People even express rage over buntings being raised in the town during night.

But with rage exists rationale. “It is certain that she is winning hands down,” many say. “You can’t defeat a sitting chief minister, do you?”

Even PDP leadership is sure of its leader’s win. Most of them only seem to be concerned about numbers. More votes, they argue, would mean that the local girl is still being counted in her hometown. On flipside, it would imply that her party PDP is losing even its ‘stronghold’. Her contenders are craftily overplaying the latter possibility.

“Despite having a vibrant political history,” says Iftikhar Misgar, an ex-PDP man, and current NC’s candidate for the by-polls, “Islamabad faced political suppression in recent times. Muftis had vowed to undo that suppression, but they only ended up betraying their voters by embracing BJP. Now, it is voters’ turn to show Mehbooba her right place.”

Last time, Islamabad witnessed 39.73 percent voter turnover. Since then, voters have increased — from 83574 (in 2014) to 84081 (42924 males and 41156 female) presently. Also for 4229 migrant voters, 20 special polling stations are being set up in Jammu (15), Delhi (04) and Udhampur (01). To woo the minority voters, the political parties are reportedly making rounds in Jammu pockets housing Kashmiri Pandits.

Lately during her road show in Islamabad, Mehbooba expressed hope that people would give her a chance like they did when they “reposed faith” in her father. To make things easy for her, BJP, her ally, didn’t field any candidate against her. But Congress’ Hilal Shah riding high on his previous record—against Mufti Sayeed’s 16,983 votes, Shah had polled 10,955 votes in the 2014 assembly elections—tells his supporters: “This time, Mehbooba would even lose her security deposits.” Even Shah’s boss, GA Mir is predicting Mehbooba’s defeat “due to wrong policies, breaching voters’ trust, unfulfilled promises and the misrule”.

Amid host of charges, the only saving grace for PDP and its chief is to bank upon past. Her support group mince no words to assert how Mufti and her daughter curbed infamous Ikhwan culture and security onslaught in Islamabad. Although the same Mufti is being accused for inducting an erstwhile Ikhwani like Usman Majeed as a Minister in his PDP-Congress coalition government in 2002, but PDP support base credits the natives for curbing large-scale violence and bloodletting.

Looking placid amid competing war of perceptions, Ms Mufti is apparently playing her father: hawking the mood silently. Already Delhi has responded with what a BJP leader called a CBM by demilitarising a portion from Mehbooba’s backyard.

But by repeatedly invoking her father during her poll campaigns, Mehbooba is seemingly back to the square one. After suffering a “political dent” by entering into an “unholy alliance” with BJP, Mehbooba is only retrying to make her father ‘relevant’ — like she did, two decades ago.

After suffering from negative perceptions as Home Minister of India—the period that witnessed massive bloodshed in valley—it was Mehbooba’s style of politics that had revamped Mufti Sayeed’s political career and made him “relevant” to Kashmir.

But being late Mufti’s ‘compassionate campaigner’ is hardly triggering any visible change in the poll-bound town. Other than BJP factor, the holdup flood relief is equally stirring tempers against the ruling party. Even political class isn’t making it easy for her. “Agencies running J&K have communicated to top leadership of all political parties that they shouldn’t create any hurdles in Mehbooba’s victory,” claims Langate lawmaker Er Rasheed, who dramatically announced and withdrew his candidature from Islamabad seat. “Indian state wants to prove Mehbooba’s victory of Indian state against Kashmiris.”

The situation might not be supportive of her, but numbers surely are. Mehbooba has won three state assembly elections, so far — in 1996 (from Bijbehara), in 2002 (from Pahalgam) and in 2008 (from Wachi).

But will Islamabad throw any surprise for the Mufti Jr who has never lost any assembly election in her 26-year long political career? Just wait for the ballot countdown.

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