by Shams Irfan
ANANTNAG (Islamabad): At around 2 pm, sitting in a corner of spacious Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Rani Bagh in Anantnag, Sheila Koul Handoo, 62, a BJP candidate from Cheeni Chowk awaits for prasad (blessing) vote from besieged Kashmir valley. But the wait seems to be unending as none among a handful of voters, who turned out to cast their votes, was a familiar face to Handoo.
“I know I have won as I have managed over 450 migrant votes,” said Handoo, a former BJP councilor from Jammu who is camping in Kashmir for the last four days. “But I am waiting for at least one blessing vote from Kashmir.”
Unlike Handoo, her rival from Congress Bashir Ahmad Khan aka Pahalwan looks desperate as he paces down the spacious school lawns. “If you are from media, then I cannot talk to you,” he busts out wearing a worried look on his face.
A few moments later a local Congress leader walks in followed by his security guards. After exchanging the data of votes cast so far, he and Pahalwan both start making desperate calls to their workers and friends. “Reach here within five minutes along with your wife else we will lose,” the leader shouts over the phone.
But given the complete shutdown in Anantnag (Islamabad) and Bijbehara areas, voters have kept away from fortified polling stations. “So far none has turned up at this booth,” said the presiding officer at nearby Khah Bazar polling booth falling under Ward 20 of the town. Anantnag
Outside the polling station Ghulam Hassan Dar, 75, a retired lecturer, who has earlier served as Vice Chairman of Municipal Committee, Anantnag, keeps tab of every voter who walks towards the centre. Dar is contesting on a Congress ticket from Janglat Mandi area.
Till 1 pm, all three polling booths in Janglat Mandi ward had polled just 14 votes out of 2450 registered in the list. But Dar is confident of winning as he claims that he has secured 13 votes so far. “We have a family of six, which means six votes. Plus my seven close relatives also voted,” said Dar with a smile on his face.
Since morning Dar has made a number of calls to his friends, neighbours and distant relatives but none has turned up to vote. “I can understand that they are afraid,” Dar said. “But I tell them that this election has nothing to do with larger politics. It is about locals issues like roads, drains, and other petty things.”
After filling his nomination Dar silently campaigned among his close friends and relatives trying to convince them to vote. “I was sure at least a few would come to vote,” said Dar with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “But they didn’t.”
Around lunchtime, a private load carrier van, with policemen in civvies sitting inside, makes its way into Hanfiya School in Lal Chowk, Anantnag. As it stops inside the highly guarded gates, policemen on poll duty, circle it from all sides. One-by-one policemen take food packets and a water-bottle from the vehicle and find themselves a shaded corner to eat. Within minutes the vehicle moves towards other polling both to feed policemen stationed there since wee hours.
Once inside the Hanfiya School polling booth reporters are bluntly told that they are not allowed to talk to anyone. “We have been instructed by the police to not let any media person inside,” said Basharat Masood, a polling officer. “I don’t care if you carry an election commission permission.”
In a corner, a few polling agents of Congress and BJP look helplessly as they endlessly wait for voters to turn up. “Let’s see what happens till 4 pm,” said one BJP polling agent who refused to share his name.
A few kilometres away at Women’s College, Anantnag, the polling station for voters of Sher-e-Kashmir (SK) colony looks equally deserted. At the entrance, policemen make sure that no media person gets inside even by chance. “We have strict order not to let any media person inside,” said a policeman guarding its gates.
But five minutes of convincing that this reporter carries valid permission given by the Election Commission of India, he lets him inside but half-heartedly. “You can go but be quick and don’t talk to any voter please,” said the policeman.
A policeman standing next to him quickly reminds his colleague that there are no voters inside!
Once inside, the vast and deserted edifice of this college looks silent as if put on a long mute. In a corner, four guys, wearing exhausted looks on their faces, sit in hurdle smoking. When asked are they, voters or candidates, they almost bust out in unison and said, “Candidates.”
But when they learned that they are talking to a newspaper reporter, they quickly said, “We are just here with a friend. Please don’t mention us anywhere. We have nothing to do with elections.”
At the end of the long and silent corridor, which on a normal day would bustle with student chatter, a few men are sitting under the October sun, taking a siesta on college chairs. In a corner sits Shadi Lal Bhat, 72, a last-minute BJP candidate from SK Colony. Bhat’s wife Sheila Handoo is contesting from Cheeni Chowk ward. “This entire exercise is futile as people are allowed to vote after checking their identities properly,” said a nervous looking Bhat.
Bhat, who owned a furniture business in Cheeni Chowk migrated in 1989 along with his family to Jammu. But Bhat visits Kashmir on and off as his wife has a flat in Government Housing Colony, Anantnag.
Unlike his wife Sheila Handoo, who is camping in Kashmir since for last one month, Bhat is here for last four days only. “I have not visited even a single voter from my ward,” said Bhat. “And unlike my wife, I couldn’t secure migrant votes either as I filed my papers on the last day.”
In the last four days, Bhat is calling his Muslim neighbours, friends, and classmates, who he had last seen almost two decades back, to convince them to come out and vote. But so far none has turned up to cast a vote. “I know they are afraid,” said Bhat.
Till 2:30 pm, the SK Colony polling booth has seen just 21 voters, a majority of them women. “There were 18 women who came to cast their votes. But as most of them had their faces covered, who knows who they were,” accuses Bhat. “I will file a formal complaint with the authorities.”
Bhat accuses his rival, a young local boy contesting on a Congress ticket, of getting people to vote without proper identity check. “Who knows who these people are,” said Bhat.
As the day nears to end the final poll figures reveal that only 374 (1.13 percent) votes were cast in 16 wards comprising 32904 registered voters.
The Anantnag Municipality has 25 wards and in nine wards, there was one nomination each and they were already declared winners. However, 16 wards witnessed a contest between 36 candidates.