A Slice of South

On 14th December everybody from PDP patron to congress strongmen and NC’s new faces would be eyeing for a slice of South Kashmir. Safwat Zargar tours the six constituencies to understand the complex dynamics, numbers and shifting loyalties that makes this contest interesting 

An aerial view of Anantnag town. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
An aerial view of Anantnag town.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Unlike the poll mood in the valley, the twin townships of Anantnag and Bijbehara reflect no election enthusiasm. The towns are silent and election speculations subtract from the normal life. There are no buntings and banners hanging; nor are the colourful posters of candidates’ mug shots pasted on walls. A couple of vehicles overflowing with awkwardly hanging supporters of the parties pass through the town once in a while, blaring high-pitched election songs sung by struggling singers.

But in an apparently implicit understanding, locals are aware about the poll trends in these areas. The man they point out to be the winner and dominating – at least in Anantnag assembly seat – is the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and PDP patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Despite being “inaccessible” to locals due to his “high profile engagements” the twin constituencies show inclination towards PDP.

If interaction, proximity, accessibility and development are the criteria for an MLA to win a seat, Mufti scores less on each count, resonates the local opinion. However, he still is the favourite. While some attribute it to his “image of change”, others believe he didn’t have a strong rival in the constituency. This election, the electoral equation in the constituency has already shifted towards Mufti, after Mehboob Beg, the former parliament member and senior National Conference leader, decided to throw his support in favour of PDP.

For 2014 polls, after jolt to NC, Mufti is head-to-head with a local Congress candidate and ex-army contractor Hilal Ahmad Shah. While Shah, a local cable operator, is known for his “sociable and reach-to-everyone attitude”, it seems hard for him to outnumber Mufti. NC’s replacement, businessman-turned-politician, Iftikhar Hussain Misgar, looks much behind in the race. While it is the town which adheres to the boycott call, BJP, eyeing migrant population of the assembly segment, seem to be banking upon both Muslim and Hindu vote by fielding a local Mohammad Rafiq Wani.

“Understanding Mufti is complex. Acting and performing like an MLA representing a single assembly segment is too small a job for the stature of a politician-cum-magician Mufti holds,” says Aslam Bhat, a retired government employee and PDP loyalist from south Kashmiri’s Mattan area. “Mufti is a silent but dynamic politician. If one looks critically at the contemporary history of Jammu and Kashmir politics, his political adventures and their impact have tilted scenarios, yet, very less people know about it,” he says.

Known for his “opportunism” and “shuttling loyalties” much of Mufti’s politics cocooned from his Congress tenure and from a brief stint with Janata Dal, before finally launching his Peoples Democratic Party in July 1999 to “provide a regional alternative to New Delhi” instead of NC.  In 1989, when the guns were roaring throughout the valley, Mufti went on to become India’s first Muslim Home Minister.

His “silent politics” has fetched him returns. Many say after 2008 elections, he was seen more in Jammu, particularly in Poonch belt, than his home. That widening his base for his brainchild PDP in Jammu region puts his ambitions in context. Perhaps, he is the only politician – while also being a chief minister for three years – who hasn’t spoken even once in the state assembly for six years. Elders in Anantnag say he [Mufti] never attended a local board meeting.

Mufti’s pen and ink pot has been dominating four – Anantnag, Bijbehara, Shangus and Pahalgam – out of six assembly seats in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. The other two – Dooru and Kokernag – are stringed to Congress. All the six constituencies inhabit a considerable population of minorities like Sikhs and Kashmiri Pandits, but owing to the usually massive participation of majority community in polls, they are far from being decisive.

In Bijbehara, Mufti’s home town, PDP has fielded two-time winner Abdul Rehman Bhat alias Veeri for the third time. Veeri, a former Congress man like Mufti, who served as a Minister of State for Parliamentary affairs, and Roads and Buildings in Mufti’s cabinet, is in contest with National Conference’s Dr Bashir Ahmad Shah. Both the candidates belong to the same village called Veeri in Bijbehara, but PDP seems more close to electorate. Congress has given mandate to political adviser of former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, advocate Manzoor Ahmad Ganai.

“No development has taken place in Bijbehara in last six years because NC looks at the constituency through pro-PDP lens,” says Nisar Hussain Allaie, President Traders Association Bijbehara. “There are other factors, likely to give an advantage to PDP; massive poll participation, a bunch of issues to be addressed by the new government, failure of government during floods and influence of Mufti,” he adds.

But sixty-year-old, Abdul Rashid, a businessman in Bijbehara town, feels boycott will impact PDP. He also ascribes BJP’s mandate to Pushkar Nath Pandita to attract Pandit votes, to the boycott aspect.  “However, I personally feel, the contest is between NC and PDP. Both the candidates are good and can represent people, but people will have to make a choice on December 14.”

Farther south, in Pahalgam and Shangus, PDP is facing challenge on two fronts; “good” local candidates and promises of development by them. Sitting MLA of PDP from Pahalgam, Rafi Ahmad Mir is in “tough contest” with NC’s engineer-turned-politician Altaf Ahmad Kaloo. Though residents of the town say Congress’s Irfan Abid Bhat alias Kullar might attract a chunk of vote share in his kitty.

In 2002, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti defeated Rafi Ahmad Mir (then with NC) by a margin of 2139 votes. Though Mehbooba became a parliament member in 2004, it was her father and that time chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who fought the bye-election from Pahalgam in 2004 and won it. During 2008, Rafi outnumbered NC’s Altaf by a margin of 10922 votes.

While both the parties are involved in massive campaigning throughout the constituency, Rafi’s prospects were pushed up by a long road-show led by Mehbooba Mufti, believes Riyaz Ahmad, a businessman from Pahalgam.

Anantnag-ContestantsShangus assembly seat is likely to witness a Congress versus PDP battle this season too. In 2002 and 2008, Congress’s Gulzar Ahmad Wani was short of victory by 341 and 1430 votes respectively against Peer Mohammad Hussain and Peer Mansoor Hussain. Sitting legislator Peerzada Mansoor Hussain of PDP is again face to face with Gulzar Ahmad Wani of Congress, but many believe the contest is “equally balanced”. National Conference has fielded advocate-turned-politician Riyaz Ahmad Khan.

“Shangus will be one of the constituencies where the results have a higher chance of being against expectations,” believes Zafar Farooq Salati, a private producer from Anantnag. “Gulzar Wani enjoys lot of support in the area even when NC-Congress coalition hasn’t fared better during last six years. On the other hand, NC’s Riyaz Khan has upped graph of NC’s image in the region,” he says.

While Dooru and Kokernag represent the Congress strongholds in Anantnag, in 2014 the constituencies are gearing up for a tough fight with both NC and PDP.

In Dooru, Minister for Tourism G A Mir is head-to-head with Syed Farooq Ahmad of PDP. Syed had remained 5918 votes behind in 2008 elections against Mir’s majority figure of 15870 votes.

While Mir’s development card is likely to give an edge to him alike previous polls, the poll mood in the town resonates with the idea of “voting on the basis of character and image of the candidate.”

“Despite his widespread development and employment opportunities for the people of Dooru, a voter is keenly introspecting at the clear image of the candidate,” says Mohammad Shafi, a local farmer of Dooru.  Shafi is pointing towards the allegations of Mir’s involvement in 2006 infamous sex scandal.

National Conference has given the mandate to the son of its late leader Mohammad Akbar Ganai. Late Ganai’s son, Farooq Ahmad Ganai is fighting for the first time but even his late father was not successful in winning the seat. During 2008, late Ganai had secured 7674 votes and ranked third in the overall tally. Loyalists of NC in the area claim that Farooq will get votes on two count; sympathy and anti-Mir chunk of electorate. However, the anti-Mir vote can also go to PDP, they add.

In 2002 elections Dooru had given a landslide victory to Mir after he managed to defeat NC’s Syed Manzoor Ahmad. The victory margin was 11342 votes. PDP ranked third.

The condition of former Minister for Education and now the Minister for Public Enterprises, Haj, Auqaf and Floriculture, Peerzada Mohammad Syed is not different. If local mood serves a tool to measure the election trends, the constituency will be polling on December 14 in a triangular contest between Peerzada, PDP’s Abdul Rahim Rather and Ghulam Nabi Bhat of National Conference.

But alike Dooru, Peerzada’s role as an education minister when his foster son was caught copying by board officials in 2009, is the plank his opponents are underlining repeatedly.

In 2002, PDP’s Ghulam Rasool Malik was just 436 votes behind Peerzada to win the seat while in 2008, NC’s Ghulam Nabi Bhat failed to wrest the seat from Peerzada owing to the deficiency of 1270 votes.

“PDP has been very strategic in highlighting NC’s role in the hanging of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. PDP leaders during campaigning also talk about the youth killed during 2008 and 2010 unrest and even visit their houses,” says Abdul Rahman, a resident of Pahalgam. “PDP has coupled NC’s failures with its image of being pro-people and peaceful tenure while being in power,” he says.

On the other hand, Shabir Sofi of Kokernag believes PDP is eyeing to wrest two Congress strongholds – Dooru and Kokernag – this election in south Kashmir. “In six seats of Anantnag, PDP will have its fingers crossed at the results of these two constituencies,” he says.

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