Anantnag Lok Sabha Seat: An election with many firsts

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by Saima Bhat

SRINAGAR: With polling held for two of three constituencies of Kashmir, the stage is set for the polling in strife-torn south Kashmir on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Spread over four districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama, the seat comprises 16 assembly segments and has 18 candidates in the fray. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has established 1,842 polling stations to facilitate smooth polling.

Sliced Segments

In contrast to the past guiding principles, Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag parliamentary constituency would be first in the country to go for polls in three phases, spread over three days-April 23,29 and May 6. Reason: “precarious” security scenario.

Polling staff being deputed to the polling stations. Kl Image by Shah Hilal

This Lok Sabha seat of south Kashmir was left vacant after Mehbooba Mufti became chief minister in early 2016.  Later the government was unable to hold the by-polls scheduled in April 2017 due to the deteriorating security situation.

Starting from April 23, 2019, the first phase of polling will be held in district Anantnag on Tuesday, April 23. The other two phases are scheduled on April 29 in Kulgam district and in Pulwama and Shopian districts on May 6.

Hotbed of militancy, the volatile constituency has 1,397,272 registered voters, including 7, 20,337 males, 6, 72,879 females and 35 transgender voters. These include 4,021 service electors (3,991 males and 30 females).

The Contenders

Marking first of its type in the electoral history of Jammu & Kashmir, Shams Khawaja, a non-state subject is one among the contenders for the seat of restive south Kashmir. A resident of Gautam Buddha Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, Shams is reported to have said that if elected, he would fight the disinformation campaign in the country against Article 370 that guarantees special status to J&K.

However, the battle, observers is between NC, PDP and Congress. PDP has played its vital card by fielding party president Mehbooba Mufti against state Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir, a former judge and NC’s lesser-known candidate Justice Hasnain Masoodi. The BJP has Muhammad Yousuf Sofi, while Peoples Conference has fielded Chaudhary Zaffar.

The First Phase

Sliced in three phases, the Anantnag district, which is going to the polls in the first phase, has six Assembly segments of Anantnag, Doru, Kokernag, Shangus, Bijbehara and Pahalgam. The district, according to data available has total of  5,29,256 electors, including 2,69,603 males, 2,57,540 females, 2,102 service electors (2,102 males and 11 females) and 11 transgender voters.

Represented last time in assembly by People Democratic Party (PDP) lawmakers, Abdul Rahim Rather and Syed Farooq Andrabi, the Kokernag Assembly segment has the highest number of 93,694 voters (48,742 males and 44,948 females), while Doru has the lowest 78,653 electors, including 40,764 males and 37,889 females.

The Assembly segment of Bijbehara, last time represented by PDP’s Abdul Rahman Veeri has 93,289 voters (47,067 males and 46,222 females). Shangus, which was represented by Congress’s Gulzar Ahmad Wani, last time has 88,374 voters (45,360 males and 43,010 females), Pahalgam, which was represented by National Conference’s Altaf Ahmad Kaloo  has  86,614 (44,115 males and 42,498 females) and Anantnag, last time represented by Mehbooba Mufti has 86,530 (43,555 males and 42,973 females).

The highest 46,222 female voters are in the Assembly segment of Bijbehara. As per the data, the ECI has set up 714 polling stations in the district.

Timings Changed

South Kashmir is proving to be a constituency of changing norms, this time it is poll timing. Taking a holistic view of the situation, the Election Commission has revised the poll timings by two hours. The EC issued notification on Friday, April 19, stating: “The poll timing in all the polling stations, for Anantnag parliamentary constituency, has been fixed from 7 am to 4 pm instead of 7 am to 6 pm.”

Earlier, sensing trouble in managing the streets after it gets dark, the security grid asked for the early culmination of polls by few hours than the normal schedule of 6 pm. Revealed by state’s Chief Election Officer Shailendra Kumar, police in consultation with district administration and other security agencies had requested the Election Commission for change in poll timing considering the threat to polling staff later in the evening. The step, police sources say was taken to avoid the possible “law and order” problem and not to give any chance to “troublemakers.” “Darkness is death in south Kashmir where you are not certain of anything. Thankfully EC revised the timings,” says s senior police officer.

Security Situation

“We will have to carry out three phases of election for just one constituency of Anantnag. So you can imagine how complicated it is,” chief election commissioner Sunil Arora had said in March.

South in valley continues to be volatile. Post Burhan Wani killing, there is no end to the uncertainty in the region. Continuous cordons, random raids, blazing houses, more militarization and killings have turned the region in “battleground”.

From change in timings to extra companies of forces, the administration, sources say is on tenterhooks to manage the situation peacefully. According to reports, 300 more additional companies of paramilitary forces have been deployed in the belt. A senior police official while talking to Kashmir Life acknowledged the challenges and said “these three days are full of challenges. Hopeful to manage it well.”

The latest attack in Lethpora has added woes to both sides, says Abdul Ahad, a local PDP worker. He said the forces have gone extra cautious while locals have an extra fear factor. The boycott seems to add the kitty of the region that has remained the nerve centre of new age-militancy.

While talking about the challenges, a senior police officer said, “we are facing a situation which was not even during the 1990s. The decision of conducting polls in three phases details everything.”

Post Script

Amid subdued campaigning, the three main players played there every card. From Mehbooba’s tears and torture tails to NC’s attack of “coffee” remark and Congress’s secularism, the contest is all set for volatile region. Once PDP’s bastion to grooming ground for militants, south in Kashmir has changed a lot. It is to be seen how the voter on the day actually behave and which way the wind will blow!

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