A Workers’ Election?

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As voters in down south are exhibiting a rare indifference towards their right to vote, the political parties are using individual efforts to get some kind of a decent turnout, reports Shams Irfan

A CRPF personal guarding a deserted polling booth in Qaimoh Kulgam.

In anticipation of the last leg of Lok Sabha polls involving the twin districts of Shopian and Pulwama (part of Lok Sabha constituency), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) key local leaders are camped in the town’s heavily-guarded Housing Colony.

There, they meet their party’s workers to get an idea of the situation outside. “It is not easy for us to mobilize people this time,” said Latief Ahmad, a middle-aged PDP worker from the town. “The campaigning is restricted to just micro-level meetings in villages where we meet and convince potential voters. This is all we could do as of now.”

But going into a village with intention to campaign is not an easy task for political workers. They have to brace themselves for uncomfortable questions like where were you when our kids were killed, our houses were raided, our boys were harassed and jailed. These questions become even more personal as they go deeper into the south, a region that has been in perpetual pain since July 2016, when the Burhan Wani’s killing threw Kashmir haywire.

On Friday (May 3, 2019), barely two days before the polling, an early morning gunfight was reported from Adakhara village near Imam Sahab in Shopian. Three militants were killed here – Latif Ahmad alias Tiger, Mufti Tariq and Shariq Ahmad. Latif was the only surviving militant in the photo-frame that made Burhan’s group famous in Kashmir. While the gunfight made the famous frame history, it will have a serious impact on the May 6 polling. Latif was killed in Shopian and he belonged to Pulwama. Both districts will take a hit now.

“There are villages with graveyards with fresh graves of boys who were killed since 2016,” said Abid, 30, a businessman who is with PDP since 2014. “It is difficult to go to these villages and ask people to come out and vote.”

In such a situation, Abid and his colleagues prefer to focus on “friendly families” – those who have been helped by their party in the last few years. “We have been always there whenever someone’s son was picked up by police or army,” said Abid. “We go to them and ask them to vote. However, it is not necessary they will vote as everyone is concerned about individual safety. But we expect them to vote.”

This reality has reduced its target of votes per village by a huge margin. “If fifty people turn out in each village, it would be enough for us. We have not kept our hopes high,” said another PDP worker who refused to give his name. “I am a local, it is better if you won’t mention my name.”

As mobilisation of commoners in Shopian and Pulwama is turning out to be a major challenge for political parties, these workers are banking on their relatives, friends and acquaintances for a “decent” turnout. But the low turn-out in Anantnag (13 per cent) and Kulgam (10 per cent) has dashed their hopes.

“If Shopian and Pulwama poll 10 per cent, I assure you 7 per cent will go to PDP,” said Waheed ur Rehman Parra, PDP’s youth leader, who is camping in Pulwama for the last twenty days. “This (south Kashmir) is PDP’s bastion. If people vote, they will vote for Mehbooba Mufti and none other.”

But Parra is sceptical about the turnout. He sees low participation as voters “protest against the process of democracy rather than against any particular political party”.

Parra argues that Mehbooba has not lost her political appeal especially after Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, and the events that unfolded afterwards. “If people had been angry with Mehbooba, then they would have come out to vote against her,” argues Parra. “But they are not voting at all. In this election, the political appeal is insignificant.”

But not all politicians see it that way.

In remote Mashwara village of Shopian, BJP’s Javaid Qadri, who is confined to his heavily guarded modest house most of the time, see Modi’s wave in Kashmir too. “People are fed up of divisive politics. They want to see Kashmir developed at par with other Indian states, and they know only Modi can do that,” said Qadri, whose only connection with the world outside is his mobile phone. “I don’t have a bulletproof vehicle,” he says. “And you know how dangerous it is to move in a place like Shopian without it.”

Waheed Rehman Para

However, despite the threat, Qadri has stayed in his village even in post-Burhan Wani situation. “I am loved by locals; they have always been supportive,” he clarifies quickly.

In 2014, Qadri unsuccessfully contested state assembly elections from Shopian and bagged over four thousand votes, highest among all BJP contestants in Kashmir division.

He is confident to recreate the 2014 magic for BJP, at least in Shopian district. “I have already proved that BJP’s presence in Kashmir is not just rhetoric but a reality,” said Qadri with a smile while his security guards lingered around.

Qadri claims, unlike PDP and NC, there is no dearth of polling agents or volunteers for BJP in south Kashmir. “We have already finalized around 250 polling agents in Shopian and Pulwama, who are being trained right now,” said Qadri.

Interestingly, during the 2018 Panchayat elections, no vote was polled in Qadri’s village. He and other two BJP men were elected unopposed as Panchs and Sarpanchs. “In Shopian, which has a huge militant presence, political activities happen behind closed doors,” said Qadri. “You cannot go out and ask people to vote for you. Only those people vote whom you have helped in one way or the other.”

But Qadri is aware about the shifting ground realities. “People associated with the BJP are always under threat in this part of Kashmir. But for the last six months, I see this threat becoming more visible,” feels Qadri.

In order to ensure an incident-free election in Shopian and Pulwama, police have arrested dozens of youngsters during over-night raids in the last two weeks. Every evening, the cops and paramilitary men move out to raid and arrest the potential “trouble makers” and some of them could be innocents. These arrests are part of the “routine” as people with “history” are rounded up before Independence and Republic day as well, said a police officer.

But despite the “routine” exercise, the voter turnout has remained dismally low across Kashmir, especially in the south.

“I have tried to convince my family to vote. But given the situation outside, they couldn’t come,” said Bashir, 45, a native of volatile Qaimoh village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam who is associated with National Conference since his college days. “The outcome of this election will depend on political workers, and their ability to come out and vote.”

According to Parra, apart from the prevailing situation, the clubbing of polling booths in hyper-sensitive villages has done more harm than any good. He argues that by removing a polling booth from a sensitive village, it discourages a potential voter who cannot go extra miles to cast his vote in a volatile situation. “If a voter has a booth near his house, he can manage to go and vote in early hours. But by taking the booths away, you are only discoursing a voter, thus helping the boycott,” said Parra. “It looks like Government of India hardly cares about voting percentage this time.”

Javid Qadri

Parra’s fears were proven right when just seven people turned up to vote at a Qaimoh school, where twelve polling booths were clubbed for a number of villages like Redwani, Arwani, Hawoora, and Khudwani. Put together, these villages have more population than Kulgam town. “How can you expect a Redwani resident to walk three kilometres from his home amid stone-pelting to cast his vote,” asked Ayaz, a young Congress’ polling agent who was camping in Qaimoh.

Perhaps that is why more than 107 polling booths in Kulgam saw zero votes! They were all marked as hyper-sensitive.

“I doubt if Delhi really cares about who votes and who doesn’t,” believes Parra. “That is why they are trying to confine local politicians to their homes by withdrawing their security covers. How can anyone go out and canvass without security, especially in the south.”

But with election battle in its crucial phase, no party wants to sit out of the contest. For parties like PDP and NC, it is a do or die election, which will set the tone for upcoming assembly polls.

NC’s greenhorn, Husnain Masoodi, who joined politics after retirement is making extra efforts to ensure the May 6 polling fetches him respectful returns. Party efforts apart, he is using all the influence he has to tackle belts where there is some possibility of polling. In his immediate area of possible influence, while Pampore is unlikely to come out in good numbers, he is making efforts in peripheral belts that may vote.

Generally, all the political parties are trying to get in peripheral belts in Shopian and Pulwama where the possibility of polling is there. This may include the Karewas of Shopian and Sungerwani in Pulwama and certain patches in Tral and Pampore. Whatever the outcome, the Monday polls will mark the conclusion of the two months long security-intensive exercise that kept Kashmir on tenterhooks.

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