A Central Battle

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The first phase of Lok Sabha polls witnessed 34 per cent plus participation but ended with a teenager’s killing. As the dance of democracy shifts to Srinagar, Shams Irfan reports that NC lacks a competition here

Dr Farooq Abdullah alongwith other party members during an election campaign in Dal Lake.

Dr Farooq Abdullah along with other party members during an election campaign in Dal Lake.

It is mid-day, but there is no one visible on the small road that enters sleepy Dawlatpora village. Located just outside Chadoora town in central Kashmir’s Budgam, this village was at the centre of the crisis in April 2017, when Srinagar parliamentary seat went to by-polls. That day, this signature calm was broken by multiple gunshots, fired directly at protestors near a polling booth. The firing left Shabir Ahmad Bhat, 28, dead on the spot. The day ended with seven bodybags across Budgam and just 7.14 per cent turnout.

“That day, I thought Budgam, at least, will never ever vote again,” said Azad, who lives at a few houses distance from Shabir’s. “But I was wrong. This tragedy too was short-lived, and faded from people’s memory.”

Azad was among the first ones to reach at the spot where Shabir bled to death. “No politician ever visited Shabir’s house, not even our MLA Javid Mustafa Mir or his opponent Ali Mohammad Dar from NC. It seems as if Shabir didn’t exist ever.”

With elections scheduled for April 18, exactly nine days after Shabir’s second death anniversary, people are caught between emotions and an invisible enemy: BJP.

Spread over three districts of Srinagar, Ganderbal and Budgam, there are 1290318 registered voters who will cast their votes at 1716 polling stations on April 18.

Unlike 2014, when the contest for Srinagar seat was neck-to-neck between PDP’s Tariq Hamid Karra and NC’s Dr Farooq Abdullah, this time the scales are heavily tilted in Farooq’s favour as there is no strong opponent.

Irfan Raza Ansari

The other three contestants in the fray are Khalid Jahangir (BJP), Agha Mohsin (PDP), and Irfan Ansari of Peoples Conference (PC). But apart from Dr Farooq, who has a long political career, none of his opponents has ever won an election, be it Panchayat, parliamentary or state assembly. But Dr Farooq is not taking any chances. In fact, he is on his toes meeting people in Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal areas on a regular basis to make sure that he reaches the parliament, this time with a better margin.

Interestingly, Dr Farooq represented Srinagar parliamentary seat by winning a by-poll in April 2017, after PDP’s Tariq Hamid Karra resigned to join Congress.

Since Karra is missing from the contest now and all other parties, including PDP, fielding not so strong candidates, Dr Farooq is already in the safe zone.

In 2014, Karra won Srinagar by securing 157923 votes pushing Dr Farooq to the runner-up status with 115642 votes. Interestingly, PDP’s current candidate Agha Mohsin fought 2014 Lok Sabah election as an independent candidate, securing just 16049 votes. But as there was no strong candidate other than Karra and Farooq even then, Mohsin bagged the third spot. But it was Karra who stunned everyone by toppling Dr Farooq in his ancestral stronghold Srinagar. Many termed him to be a ‘king slayer’ not knowing that three years later, he would personally campaign for Dr Farooq.

PC in Srinagar

The “fall” of PDP and the “rise” of Sajad Lone’s PC have a common thread, Ansaris. Even before BJP pulled out of Mehbooba led BJPDP collation, Imran Raza Ansari was vocally critical about nepotism in the party. Finally, he parted ways with PDP and joined hands with Sajad Lone. Imran’s younger brother is now PC’s candidate from Srinagar constituency. Son of veteran Shia cleric and PDP leader late Molvi Iftikhar Ansari, Irfan who would look after family’s businesses, is a greenhorn in politics contesting his debut election.

Being one of the richest contestants, Irfan Ansari’s entry into politics coincides with PC’s entry into Srinagar formally.

Agha Mohsin Politician

Agha Mohsin

So far, unlike Sajad, who resides in Srinagar, PC was confined to Kupwara and Handwara belts only. PC did not contest Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabah seats in 2014. But after allying with BJP in the state assembly, PC is now contesting Kashmir’s all three seats.

“The vote share in Lok Sabah elections will help us understand and plan state assembly elections in a better way,” said Farooq Ahmad Mir, 60, a PC loyalist and member from Kupwara’s Kralpora area.

PDP Tag

As one travels in Budgam town and other parts of the district, a sense of defeat among even hardcore PDP cadre is palpable from a distance. It seems all of them carry the burden of Mehbooba’s political blunders with them. “We have no answer when people quote her (Mehbooba’s) infamous toffee remark,” said a PDP’s worker from Chadoora who refused to share his name. “And that remark is quoted by almost every person we meet as political workers or simply as fellow Kashmiris.”

Besides, the wisdom behind her political alliance with the BJP is questioned by almost everyone in the area. “It is she who got NIA to Kashmir,” alleged Ghulam Mohammad Baba, an advocate in Chadoora court. “How can one forget hundreds of civilian killings in her rule?”

In Chrar-e-Sharief, which was represented in the state assembly by PDP’s Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjoora since 2014, there are clear signs of change as people literally miss former NC lawmaker and state’s longest-serving finance minister, Abdul Rahim Rather. In 2014, when Rather lost after representing the assembly seat for a record 36 years at a stretch, it sent shock waves in the NC. “The reason for his loss was switch-over of a large number of disgruntled loyalists to PDP camp just before the elections,” said Nazir Ahmad, an advocate from Lolipora. “Now most of them are back. Their re-entry will make a huge difference in the coming Lok Sabah elections for NC as this entire belt votes.”

Spread over five assembly segments, Budgam district offers insight about the possible matrix of voting pattern in the upcoming election. “Look Beerwah, Chrar-e-Sharief, and Budgam are currently NC dominated,” said Nazir, who has been keeping a tab of changing trends in local politics since 2014. “While Khan Sahab seat is a stronghold of Hakim Yasin; Chadoora is an open contest with a clear edge for NC.”

Senior advocate Abdul Rashid Hanjoora, 61, who has never voted since he lost 1897 state assembly elections as Muslim United Front (MUF) candidate from Chrar-e-Sharief, was optimistic about PDP replacing the dynastic politics of NC after they won in 2014. “But when they (PDP) joined hands with BJP, they broke a lot of hearts,” said Hanjoora. “Now see they are gone as a party, at least for now. One cannot talk about PDP openly without getting confronted by people.”

Besides, PDP’s face in the region Ghulam Nabi Lone failed to deliver to the expectations of the people. Instead, PDP neglected two key local tourist spots, Nilnag and Yousmarg completely. “They were only developing already developed Pahalgam,” said Nazir.

Khalid Jehamgir BJP

Khalid Jehangir

But what irked locals was the diversion of water through pipes from doodh-ganga nallah at Nowhar village to Srinagar, at the cost of local agriculture and produce. “They deprived villagers of their share in water so that it can be piped to Srinagar,” said Abdul Majid Lone, a Nowhar resident. “These anti-people policies and the killings and blinding of young boys in 2016 dented PDP’s image completely.”

Besides PDP’s winning candidate Javid Mustafa Mir, who represented Chadoora since 2002 has quit and joined hands with Shah Feasel a few weeks before the elections. He is replaced by an unpopular businessman Mohammad Yaseen Bhat.

Silent Srinagar

Since 1989, Srinagar mostly avoids the electoral process. But there are a few who vote, and these areas have the capacity and numbers to make a difference. Spread over eight assembly segments Srinagar’s politics is dominated by downtown rather than uptown.

In Khanyar, it is Ali Mohammad Sagar who has been retaining the fort for NC since for a record 36 years now. In 2014, given PDP’s wave across the valley, NC lost key areas in Srinagar including Hazratbal, Zadibal, Amira Kadal, Batamaloo and Sonwar. This left NC cornered to Habba Kadal, Khanyar and Eidgah.

But with Altaf Bukhari (Amira Kadal) out to support NC, the party is getting stronger. PDP had a strong base in rural areas. Srinagar fell because of a strong PDP wave and anger against NC’s, especially after the 2014 floods.

Ganderbal Gambit

Considered as one of the safest seats for Abdullahs’, Ganderbal has been the Sheikhs’ centre to power even in worst times. In 2002, however, Omar Abdullah started his political journey in Kashmir after unsuccessfully contesting from Ganderbal. Though he wrested the seat in 2008, he eventually vacated it for Ishfaq Ahmad Sheikh and contested himself on two seats: Sonwar and Beerwah. He ended up losing Sonwar but won Beerwah with a whisker.

Since 2014, Ganderbal has transformed especially after the killing of Kashmir University Assistant Professor, Mohammad Rafi, who was killed along with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s top commander Saddam Padder in Shopian.

“His killing and the events that followed changed the mood among youngsters in Ganderbal to an extent,” said one of Rafi’s friends who wished not to be named.

Shabir Ahmad Bhat was killed on April 09, 2017, when by-poll elections were held for Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. (Right) Shabir's mother Zareefa at her house in Dawlatpora in Chadoora.

Shabir Ahmad Bhat was killed on April 09, 2017, when by-poll elections were held for Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. (Right) Shabir’s mother Zareefa at her house in Dawlatpora in Chadoora.

Ganderbal has two assembly segments: Ganderbal and Kangan, both represented in the last assembly by NC men.

As the tone for elections is set by Baramulla Lok Sabah seat, which saw 34.6 per cent polling, it will be interesting to see how Ganderbal reacts to NC’s call of “save Kashmir”.

In Dawlatpora, Budgam, Shabir’s mother Zareefa is not bothered about elections at all. Her sole concern is to secure a permanent livelihood for her youngest son Adil, 18, who is trying to help his family by working as a labourer.

“We will not vote, but at the same time, I will not hold any grudge towards those who will,” said Zareefa. “I just want a job for my son Adil. He is my only hope now after Shabir is gone.”

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