Notwithstanding clan rivalries among Agha’s of Budgam that has divided NC’s traditional vote bank, it is the political indifference that will prove crucial for ruling party in coming assembly elections. Safwat Zargar reports
With almost 90 per cent winning record of National Conference in this Central Kashmir’s assembly segment, the recent debacle of NC in Lok Sabha polls showed a different pattern of voting in this NC stronghold. For decades the Budgam assembly segment has been an easy game for National Conference, with NC winning nine out of ten assembly elections held since 1957, but the growing influence of other alternative parties and independent candidates who are promising ‘change and better governance’ seem to have added to the worries of NC cadre.
In the recently held Lok Sabha elections, Peoples Democratic Party got more than 15377 votes as compared to NC’s 12186 figure. The shift in the voting pattern has raised antennas among the NC cadre in the district to understand the reasons behind it. However, one thing the cadre is sure about is that the ‘disconnect of local MLA (Aga Syed Ruhullah) with the people’ tops the list of reasons for the failure of NC in Budgam.
“People are conscious now. It is not the party, like in the past which used to get votes irrespective of the candidate, rather I have no hesitation in saying that it is the candidate who matters now for people,” says Aga Syed Mehmood, former minister and one of the prominent leaders of NC in Budgam.
Though being a cabinet minister under NC led government under Farooq Abdullah, Mehmood left NC in 2002 after the mandate was given to another young member of Aga family in Budgam-Aga Syed Ruhullah. It was a tough contest between the two relatives representing two different political identities in 2002, with Ruhullah sweeping a victory by getting more than 50 per cent votes. However, Mehmood’s political worth was something which couldn’t be ignored by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), who was second in the voter share and third in the 2008 elections. Mehmood joined PDP in 2002 only to bid adieu to the party after Muntazir Mohiuddin, a PDP worker from Khan Sahib, was apparently lobbying for PDP’s mandate in Budgam. Four days before the Srinagar-Budgam Lok Sabha constituency went for polls, Mehmood rejoined NC on 26th April 2014.
“The local MLA has done very less for the development of the constituency. This is the reason that not only the people but whole NC cadre is mulling over the projection of a new candidate from NC in Budgam,” says Mehmood, who fought the assembly elections of 2002 and 2008 as an independent candidate. Interestingly, after contesting 2002 elections, Mehmood joined PDP and left the party in 2007, a year before 2008 assembly polls.He then again joined PDP after 2008 polls and remained its member till April 2014, when Mehmood finally switched over to his parent party -NC.
With seven candidates in the fray, the total electorate of assembly segment was 67445 in 2002 out of which only 22531 votes were polled. In 2008, number of candidates had risen up to 16 coupled with the rise in voter turnout to 48942 voters casting ballot, out of the total electorate of 88713. According to official estimates, Budgam assembly segment at current has an electorate of around 95000 votes.
The interesting scenario which can strongly hurt the NC’s vote base in Shia dominated Budgam town is the ‘political disintegration’ of the highly influential and religious, Aga family. With the young Aga Syed Ruhullah, who served as a minister of Information and Technology under Omar Abdullah’s cabinet, dominating the political discourse in Budgam, many of his relatives living just few metres away from his house, have took up different political tracks. Experts believe that this can ‘severely divide the vote bank of NC in Budgam.’
Another scion of the Aga family, Aga Syed Abdul Hussain Kashmiri, a working journalist and a religious figure, is all set to launch his new political party ahead of 2014 assembly elections. Abdul Hussain, who fought the recent Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency, bagged 7301 votes. However, according to Abdulhussain, his party is going to launch a movement to counter the ongoing ‘cultural aggression’, so that the stage can be set for religious personalities to contribute their bit towards the ‘mission’. “My agenda is to fight for the Kashmir’s lost identity.”
Abdul Hussain Kashmiri is aware about the big players in the game, but he is confident of bagging ‘good number of votes from the people who will listen to his call of participation of religious people in the active politics.’
Lok Sabha elections held last month also showed a growing influence of another independent candidate from Budgam –Aga Syed Mohsin – who coincidentally also belongs to the Aga family. Out of the total 35853 votes polled in Budgam assembly segment of Srinagar-Budgam Lok Sabha constituency, Aga Syed Mohsin bagged 6553 votes, lagging behind only Tariq Hameed Karra and NC patron Farooq Abdullah. Whatever the polling percentage, Mohsin’s impact on voting pattern can be a significant factor in determining the winner from this assembly segment in 2014.
Another worrying factor for NC can be the influence of Shia cleric cum PDP leader Molvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari whose legacy in Budgam can duly attract a chunk of voter turnout in his favour. In 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Ansari had scored 15760 votes in Budgam assembly segment against 14228 votes polled in favour of Farooq Abdullah.
With PDP’s Tariq Hameed Karra leading a comprehensive victory over National Conference patron Farooq Abdullah by almost 43000 votes in recent Lok Sabha elections, PDP is tight lipped over disclosing its candidate for Budgam. But many in the assembly segment believe that Muntazir Mohiuddin, an employee of Food and Supplies department and a vibrant PDP figure in Budgam, is likely to get the mandate.
“There is going to be a close contest this time between NC and PDP in Budgam,” Muntazir says. “The party high command will take decision about the candidate. As a worker, I have started my party’s door to door campaigning since January 2014 irrespective of the fact that whether I am a candidate or not.”
Despite being one of the close districts adjoining the summer capital Srinagar, locals say that the current government has done almost nothing to address their problems. “We don’t have roads, nor transport. We have to walk almost two and a half kilometres on foot to reach the only college in Budgam,” says Mohammad Ibrahim, a student.
“We don’t have any facility here. From health to drinking water, we are suffering on every front,” says Mushtaq Ahmad, a local who lives two kilometres away from Budgam town. “Our MLA never bothered to visit or interact with the people who led him to the power.”
Electricity and ill-equipped district hospital top the list of issues and concerns for locals in Budgam. The aggregate of not addressing the issues and problems of people on ground is axing National Conference other way, with even the traditional NC loyalists voting against it. “In Budgam hospital, even a simple case of headache is referred to Srinagar,” says Ghulam Rasool, a farmer. “We don’t have a surgical block in hospital. I have been a NC voter since last 30 years but in this election I will vote against it.”
On the contrary, Aga Syed Ruhullah of NC and MLA Budgam who has won both the elections he contested in Budgam since 2002 claims that his government has tried every possible thing to increase the infrastructure and development in his constituency. “Development is an ongoing process and you can never expect cent per cent satisfaction from the people. From health sector to education I have worked day and night to serve my people.”
Ruhullah, however, agrees that the rise of independent candidates from his own clan has divided the vote share in Budgam in recently held Lok Sabha polls. “The rise of new candidates duly impacted the vote share but I am fully sure that it won’t happen in assembly elections. Lok Sabha polls and assembly elections are two different scenarios, so we shouldn’t derive analogies between the two.”
He also says that he can’t comment at this point of time whether NC will give him mandate or not. “There are almost four months till assembly elections. My focus this time is on serving people and not on mandate,” Ruhullah says.
The assembly constituency’s boycott belt is mostly the Soibugh area, which is the home village of United Jihad Council (UJC) Chief Syed Mohammad Yousuf Shah popularly known as Syed Salahudeen. A local MLA, Mohammad Kamal Malik who contested 2002 elections on a PDP ticket, bagged 3883 votes out of total 22531 votes polled, ranking third after Ruhullah and Aga Syed Mehmood. In 2008 elections, Kamal ranked second in the voter turnout with 9692 votes in his favour out of total 48942 votes cast, only after Ruhullah of NC.
“I am sure about bagging almost 11,000 votes this time from my own area only,” says Mohammad Kamal Malik, who after almost a decade’s affiliation with PDP joined Peoples Conference of Sajad Gani Lone in 2012.
“I know that I belong to a boycott belt in Budgam but if I contest the elections, people will vote for me,” he says. “My focus is on development and local issues. I am not making any claims of bringing autonomy and solving Kashmir issue.”
Kamal says that Budgam assembly constituency has been a victim of grave negligence by the previous governments. “The condition of Budgam town can easily provide a glimpse of what will be the scenario in peripheries,” Kamal says. According to Kamal, the primary health centre (PHC) in Soibugh hasn’t been upgraded since 1962, even when the population of the area has grown tremendously. “There is no road connectivity. Our area seems lost in the vast ocean,” he says.
“There is much anti-NC anger among people,” says Mehraj ud din, a social science graduate from Soibugh. “The recently concluded Lok Sabha elections have given a clue to PDP or other political parties to capitalize on this point. It now depends on whether they can reach people in these four months or not, so as to ensure the turnout in their favour.”