A Lone Fight

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A week ahead of the first phase of polling, Shams Irfan spent a few days trekking north Kashmir to understand how the two Lones – Mohammad Akbar Lone and Sajjad Lone – are clashing to wrest the prized Baramulla seat

Sajad Lone and Akbar Lone.

Amid hundreds of soldiers, their fast-moving vehicles, big garrisons, and sadbhavna banners that dominate the roads and landscape in north Kashmir, one can blink-and-miss small election posters of National Conference (NC) and Peoples Conference (PC) – two key local political parties contesting for Baramulla Lok Sabha.

These posters are hung on electric poles, located mostly near army garrisons in peripheral towns; the areas expected to see a good turnout of voters this time. But apart from these posters, one can hardly get the feel of elections in most parts of Baramulla constituency, which has nearly 12 lakh electors.

Most of the political activity is confined to small rallies in “friendly pockets” like Pattan, Tangmarg, Boniyar, Uri, Rafiabad, Handwara, Kupwara, and Lolab. These rallies are conducted in a low-key manner across the constituency. An element of fear among candidates and indifference among voters can be felt almost everywhere.

However, as one travels deeper into the constituency, away from Baramulla and Sopore towns, that have historically stayed away from elections, both posters and men behind them become slightly visible. Spread over 15 assembly constituencies in Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara districts, there are nine candidates in the fray including Mohammad Akbar Lone of NC, Raja Ajaz Ali of PC, Haji Farooq Ahmad Mir of INC, Mohammad Maqbool War of BJP, Jahangir Khan of NPP, Abdul Qayoom Wani of PDP. But as one travels in the constituency the contest narrows down to between NC and PC.

While NC has a loyal voter base, it is Sajad Lone’s PC that has emerged as a challenger with a strong base in Rafiabad, Handwara, Kupwara, and parts of Uri.

Months before Lok Sabah elections were announced, Sajad has been doing his calculations, and allying with people whom he believed will help him get votes. Perhaps that is why he chose former PDP man Raja Ajaz Ali, who was the second runner up from Uri in 2014 assembly elections. But Ali’s influence among Paharis, a community, Sajad Lone had failed to lure previously, is surely going to help PC.

But with just two Handwara and Kupwara assembly seats to his credit in last elections, NC does not consider Sajad’s PC as a challenge at all. “There is no contest between PC and NC,” said a confident Shafkat Wattali, who is NC’s assembly candidate from Langate. “PC is confined to just a few areas of Kupwara town and Handwara. Rest it is all NC.”

But to write Sajad off is dangerous for NC’s existence in future assembly elections. Between 2014 assembly elections and 2019 Lok Sabah elections, a lot has changed on the ground, especially in north Kashmir. New alliances came up over the ruins of older ones. Sajad has been successful in stitching almost invisible alliance at a micro level with people who are the real movers and shakers in the elections. This includes independent Panches and Sarpanches with not more than a few hundred votes in their kitties. But when these few hundred are added up, it makes a huge difference in the final outcome. These alliances are stitched on small promises like the black topping of link roads, allotment of new electricity transformers, transfers, and tapped water.

Unlike NC that promises the solution of Kashmir issue to its voters, PC is addressing local issues that concern people’s day-to-day lives.

Save Kashmir, Vote for NC

Around 500 people, mostly NC’s cadre, are huddled around a small make-shift tent pitched on the banks of gushing Uri nallah, with picturesque pine trees in the background. It is Akbar Lone’s first rally in Boniyar town.

He is accompanied by NC’s famous face from the region Mohammad Shafi, a five times MLA since 1975. Five minutes into the speech Lone is explaining to people why Mohammad Shafi is called Shafi Uri.

Lone’s win is crucial for NC as it will cement the party’s position in the upcoming assembly elections. That is why Lone makes it sure to remind people about looming threat to Kashmir’s special identity. “Vote for us to counter forces who want to destroy Kashmir and revoke Article 370 and 35-A,” Lone tells people amid claps. “And who else can counter them than the party founded by Sheikh Abdullah, the loin of Kashmir.”

For Lone, safeguarding Kashmir’s special status is the key issue that they believe will help them win the elections. “It was PDP who let BJP into Kashmir and now see how BJP is behaving. Our aim is to keep BJP and its proxies out,” insists Lone.

Election rally of National Conference in Uri.

But even in the small township of Boniyar, which has a history of voting in large numbers, people don’t see elections as a mandate to solve Kashmir issue. Rather they want the contestants to focus on deliverable small day-to-day issues. “We all know none among them has the capacity to solve Kashmir issue. So why to lie,” said Mohammad Ramzan, 56, a local businessman.

For a majority of people living in this mountainous belt, a priority list of issues while voting for a party are entirely different. “Our demands are really small and localized, but these leaders don’t want to address them or even acknowledge,” said Sanaullah Dar, 74, a retired headmaster from Boniyar’s Limer village. “For us, lack of mobile connectivity is more important as it hampers the studies of our kids; they have to walk two kilometers to get a mobile network.”

In entire Uri belt, which experts believe holds key to Baramulla seat, the word unemployment almost echoes everywhere. “We were promised employment when power projects in Uri were started. It was because of those promises that we gave our precious land for the project,” said Bashir Ahmad Ganie, 55, a businessman from Boniyar. “But once the project was complete, they hired non-locals. And even when they had to hire a Kashmiri, they hired from Baramulla or Sopore.”

A day after Lone’s rally in Boniyar, party’s vice-president Omar Abdullah addressed a modest gathering at Pattan and raised the demand for a separate Prime Minister for Kashmir. He told the gathering that the demand is justified and constitutional. Omar also told people that Kashmir faces the onslaught from BJP, RSS, and allies, which NC will stop.

“We know these are just election gimmicks. Be it Omar or anyone else, they cannot undo what has been done. They don’t have the capacity or will to do what they are promising people,” said Shareef-u-din, 65, a resident of Baramulla.

Lone Loyalists

It is almost 8 pm, and the small non-descript Haria village, around 20 kilometers from Kupwara, is lively with people arriving from nearby villages at Zuhaib Lone’s modest house. They are PC’s local workers. They are here to see their party leader Sajad Lone, who is staying in the village for the night. Unlike other election campaigns in the area, the mood inside the house, which belongs to Sajad Lone’s family friend, is upbeat. “We are winning without an issue,” said Shafaat Lone, an advocate from nearby Kralpora. “We don’t see any challenge from NC even.”

These party loyalists like Shafaat are ready with answers when asked about Sajad’s controversial alliance with BJP. “Wasn’t Omar Abdullah part of Vajpayee’s government? Wasn’t it Mehbooba who got BJP in Kashmir? Why single out Lone then,” he asks. “Our party’s agenda is purely development. And we all know without the center’s help that is not possible.”

Within half-an-hour, as the word spreads about Sajad’s presence in the house, people in smaller groups start arriving. It instantly fills all the rooms in the house. In a corner, Sajad sits wrapped in a blanket, listening to his party’s workers. They are planning a rally in Kupwara.

“These areas conduct just small party gatherings,” said Sajad with a hint of satisfaction in his voice while looking around. “When we will have our rally, it will be huge.”

For Sajad, who represented Handwara constituency in last legislative assembly and was made a minister under BJP’s quota, winning Baramulla seat will define PC’s worth in upcoming assembly elections. But can Sajad dismantle NC’s strong base in the region?

“People cannot be always fooled by dynastic politicians like Omar and Mehbooba,” said Sajad. “They know these people are lying through their teeth. Both Omar and Mehbooba have a tactical understanding to rule Kashmir alternatively. That is why my entry into political and the popularity of PC is making them nervous.”

But interestingly PC’s future heavily relies on former PDP politicians like Mohammad Abbas Wani, a former PDP lawmaker from Gulmarg, Imran Ansari, and Raja Ajaz Ali, for its success in Baramulla.

“We have finished PDP, now we will finish NC soon,” said Sajad with a smile referring to lawmakers from PDP joining him.

A few days later Sajad addressed a massive rally in Handwara

The Minions

With contest largely between NC and PC, the other contestants are relying on small voters’ bases. For instance, Er Rasheed, who was keen to see NC joining hands with PDP to keep “BJP away”, has himself jumped into the fray. But rather than altering much on the ground, his presence is seen as a blessing in disguise by the PC. “Our voter base is not same. He will get the same number of votes he used to get in assembly elections. Those are his individual votes which would have hardly come to us,” believes Farooq Mir, 60, a Kralpora resident, who is with Lone family since Gani Lone’s days. “In fact, the votes Rasheed will get would have gone to NC in his absence. So that way it is good he is contesting himself.”

In Langate, Rasheed’s own constituency, there is a visible change in peoples’ mood especially after three civilians were killed during post-Burhan Wani protests in 2016. “This town will not vote,” said Shabir Ahmad Mir, 45, a taxi driver. “But there will be a good turnout in villages. People will vote as they are scared if BJP returns they will scrap Article 370 and 35-A.”

But Mir’s friend, who sits next to him, quickly corrects him, “We vote for the sake of local issues, else we will not vote at all.”

In last assembly elections, Rasheed was elected to the assembly after securing over 18000 votes. “This time he won’t get even that much,” said Basharat Ahmad, a local social worker. “This will ultimately expose his prospects of winning upcoming assembly elections.”

On the other hand former president of Jammu and Kashmir Teachers Forum (JKTF), Abdul Qayoom Wani, who recently joined PDP banks heavily on his image as an activist. But given the anger against PDP, even in remotest parts of north Kashmir, Wani has an uphill task at hand to salvage his and his party’s image. “Voting for PDP is out of the question. We would prefer BJP over them,” said Sheraz Ahmad, a first-time voter from Tangmarg area.

Election campaign posters in Uri market.

In order to connect with the voters, Mehbooba Mufti during a public rally in Baramulla used recent Balakot incident to take a dig at PM Modi. “19 trees and a crow were destroyed in that strike only,” she told a cheering crowd.

But both Mehbooba and Wani know that their chips are down right now. It will take a lot more than rhetoric to lure voters into PDP’s fold.

Number Game

There has been lots of political castling before the elections were announced. A number of people moved from one party to another, disturbing the equation for their former parties, but changing it for their new bosses. For instance one of the biggest pre-poll move was made by former PC leader Salamuddin Bajad, who secured over 70000 votes in 2014 Lok Sabah polls from Baramulla and ended No 3. “His exit from PC will hardly alter much on the ground as these votes belong to Sajad Sahab, and not to Bajad,” said Farooq Ahmad Mir, the Ghani Lone loyalist who has numbers and figures on his fingertips. “His personal vote bank is less than five thousand votes.”

But while Sajad lost Bajad to NC, he got senior PDP leader and former MLA Mohammad Sultan Panditpuri’s son Irfan Panditpuri, PDP’s Raja Ajaz Ali and Mohammad Abbas Wani into the party folds. “All of them will add to PC’s strength,” said Sajad.

If we go by numbers, in 2014 assembly elections Raja Ajaz Ali contested on PDP ticket from Uri and lost. But he secured 20000 votes. This includes game changer Pahari votes. “There are over a lakh Pahari votes in this belt which make all the difference in final result,” said Mir. “One who secures these votes has a better chance of winning Baramulla. In short, the key to Parliament lies in Uri.”

Perhaps that is why small party offices of NC and Congress are located in the same building in Boniyar’s small market place. For NC, the work of former MLA Mohammad Shafi aka Shafi Uri will decide Akbar Lone’s fate in the region.

“Congress is banking on Taj Mohiddin’s image to secure those votes,” said Abdul Razaq Wani, a resident of Uri. “But Taj is the least visible politicians since he lost elections in 2014.

Same way, Mohammad Abbas Wani represented Gulmarg as PDP’s candidate by securing 22000 votes. Likewise, Abdul Gani Vakil of Congress, who joined PC, was runner-up from Rafiabad assembly constituency. He secured over 15000 votes. His presence will help PC to cement its posting in the area, which traditionally belongs to NC.

Friendly Contest

Before the filing of nominations for Baramulla, NC and Congress were in talks for a possible seat sharing alliance. Though the alliance did happen no consensus was reached on Baramulla and Anantnag seats. It was declared that both NC and Congress will have ‘friendly contest’ on these two seats. But NC’s Lone has an entirely different take when it comes to understanding with Congress. “They (Congress) are more dangerous than BJP. There is nothing called a friendly contest. Our fight is with Congress as much as with BJP and its proxies in Kashmir,” said Lone on the sidelines of a rally in Boniyar.

But Congress’s choice of candidate clearly reflects their eagerness to have a friendly contest with NC. They chose Haji Farooq Ahmad Mir, who secured just over 7000 votes from Lolab in last assembly elections. The winner, PDP’s Abdul Haq Khan got around 30000.

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