The day Srinagar’s eight assembly seats date voting, Omar Abdullah would be hoping Sonawar would eventually emerge the next King’s constituency. But it doesn’t seem a cakewalk for him in the face of other parties’ fierce poll campaigning, strong anti-incumbency and unavoidable ‘change’, reports Bilal Handoo
Sonawar constituency carved out in 1995 and stretched from Khanmoh to Fakir Gujri has remained stronghold of the ruling National Conference till date. The party has already clinched hatrick from this segment of Srinagar since 1996 elections. But in 2014, the winds of ‘change’ are blowing fast over Sonawar amid the saffron brigade’s ‘lotus’ stride.
However, the ‘party of plough’ isn’t standing on a sticky wicket. It has fielded its prized candidate who deserted his family legacy (Ganderbal) after 39 years to try his luck closer to Gupkar. Besides the ‘secular’ party (Congress) under the seasoned politician who finished third in 2008 from this Srinagar segment is equally confident for the fourth phase polling starting on December 14.
The preliminary poll assessment maintains that this high profile constituency of Srinagar is likely to witness a ‘tough’ triangular contest between National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Congress.
Sonawar created much interest this summer after Omar Abdullah decided to contest from the segment other than Beerwah in Budgam. The third generation Abdullah’s quest to make Sonawar another king’s constituency was equally reciprocated by the youth of the segment who joined NC in droves this fall with the motive to strengthened Omar’s chances. Omar was quick to respond the gesture. “Youth would form an integral part of my vision to develop Sonawar to its true potential,” Omar vows.
The vow, however, hasn’t made the contest a cakewalk for Omar. After Dr Farooq Abdullah’s first political defeat in 2014 summer polls, PDP projected Mohammad Ashraf Mir as a potential contender from Sonawar. The anti-incumbency factor favours the party that has adopted Muslim United Front’s symbol: pen and inkpot.
Mir is quite vocal to give befitting reply to NC, that too, “once for all”. He says Omar has already accepted his defeat much ahead of polling. “People will vote for PDP this time,” he continues, “as they know: only PDP can address their aspirations.” Mir while pointing to the “large participation” of people at his rally vindicates PDP is going to register a ‘marvellous triumph’—“I challenge Omar to win form Sonawar.”
With 77,401 registered voters, the segment witnessed 39.61 per cent turnout in 2008 with total 26 contesting candidates. NC’s Ghulam Mohammad Bawan was first candidate to win the seat in 1996 followed by NC’s Mohammad Yaseen Shah in 2002. NC patron Dr Farooq Abdullah won it in 2008 by 94 votes against his nearest rival PDP’s Ghulam Qadir Pardesi. (Abdullah polled 7018 against Pardesi’s 6924 votes. Congress’s Wakhloo stood third with 6301 votes.)
However, Dr Farooq soon vacated the seat after his Rajya Sabha nomination. A by-election followed, in which NC’s Mohammad Yaseen Shah defeated PDP’s Ghulam Qadir Pardasi and Mohammad Ashraf Mir with 54 and 212 votes respectively.
A mosaic of urban, rural and kandi voters, majority of people in Sonawar are ‘badly irked’ with NC’s “underperformance”. The ire is especially directed towards the incumbent MLA Mohammad Yaseen Shah who only “enjoyed” the “perks of power” during the last six years and has “totally failed” on the “ground”. Such feeling also runs deep in NC stronghold of Fakir Gujri.
For 2014 winter polls, total 16 candidates are in fray from Sonawar. Among them is the 73-year-old Congress candidate, Khemlata Wakhloo. This Kashmiri Pandit (KP) politician is toiling hard at her ripe age to thwart NC’s winning streak and PDP’s ‘change’. Her resurgence is equally fuelled by Modi government’s Pandit rehabilitation package proposal. It is believed, the proposal has undermined Congress’s KP vote-bank in Sonawar. To top it, PDP’s ‘good’ relation with KPs has further deepened crisis for Congress in the segment. And the end result: votes might end up splitting between PDP and BJP.
But Congress’s Wakhloo, to woo voters, is passionately promising employment, development, women empowerment, artisan welfare and tourism. People want progress and development, she believes, they will vote for Congress, “as people still remember the wonderful tenure of former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.”
Wakhloo started her political career as a NC worker in 1975. Nine years later in 1984, she was the part of the rebel NC group led by Ghulam Mohammad Shah (Sheikh Abdullah’s son-in-law) that toppled Farooq Abdullah government. Wakhloo was later rewarded with state tourism ministry. However, post-1989, she distanced herself from politics. But in 1991, Wakhloo along with her husband Dr O N Wakhloo were kidnapped. They were kept in captivity for 45 days before being rescued by Indian army from the militant hideout.
She made a comeback into active politics in 2000 by joining Congress. However, her electoral debut ended on losing end in 2002. The same was repeated in 2008 elections. Presently her state party president Saifuddin Soz is wooing voters in Sonawar for ensuring an assembly berth for her. “One Peer Bilal Ahmad (Independent candidate from Sonawar) has been stating that some Congress party leaders are behind him,” Soz clarifies. “But the fact is: only Wakhloo is Congress candidate from Sonawar.”
The rise of Peer Bilal Ahmad has further spiced up Sonawar contest. This son of a prominent faith healer of Harwan (with followers in lakhs across valley) enjoys sizeable support from people of Harwan area. Bilal is playing Thead card to woo voters. He vows to fight for the cause of New Thead people uprooted from their ancestral prime location Gupkar-Chashma Shahi by the then Dogra ruler Hari Singh about seventy year back.
Sonawar is divided into three segments: Brane Nishat to Khimbar-Faqir Gujri (Harwan area), Gagribal to Sonwar and Padrathen to Khonmouh. Harwan and Pandrathan to Khonmouh areas decided the winner last time. If Sonawar turns out to be a triangular contest, then it is believed, Omar must bank upon pro-ballot rather than pro-boycott belts. As Gagribal to Sonawar area mostly boycotts or polls low, Omar might find himself in tight spot if the area sticks to old guards.
The announcement of “peace activist” Darakhshan Andrabi as BJP candidate from Sonawar has added a new twist to the contest. Known for celebrating Valentine’s Day as a day of love on the border with Pakistan, Andrabi is being seen as a weak candidate compared to others. But that doesn’t stop her from doing door-to-door campaigning. “I will not disappoint BJP,” she asserts. While boasting about her “public support,” she says, “Omar doesn’t stand a chance!”
Campaigning under ‘Vote for India’ and ‘Aman Ke liyay Rai-Shumaari’ has already earned her the name ‘Daughter of India’. “BJP’s Kashmir policy is good,” believes Andrabi, winner of Rani Laxmi Bai Award and Vandemataram Samman. (She is known for her pro-Indian military poems. She has previously worked as Editor of the bi-monthly Urdu Sheeraza of J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.) However, it is said that Andrabi was close to Sikh groups before joining BJP.
She is mainly wooing women voters by promising their welfare. “Women must come forward in Kashmir to join politics,” she asserts. “If we don’t, how can we expect political parties to give us 33 per cent reservation?”
Of late, Omar too started door-to-door campaigning and promises to make Sonawar an example of great public infrastructure, a spirited private sector growth and a hub for employment generation. “I have grown up in Sonawar and live here,” he says. “I have spent my childhood here and have a natural, emotional bond with all of you.”
The ground mood, however, is badly miffed, especially closer to Gupkar. The manner NC-Congress coalition government handled the flood crisis has remains an apparent pinching factor for the locals. “Omar went into hiding during floods, when we needed his government’s assistance the most,” says Gowher Mir, a local. “It doesn’t make any difference now, even if, he promises anything.”
But the glaring mood on ground doesn’t prevent Omar to promise that he would always be in constant touch with the youth activists of Sonawar and would take their inputs at regular intervals to chart out a plan to deal with all pending local grievances.
His detractors, however, say Omar promised the same to Ganderbal youth prior to 2008 poll victory. But they rue, Omar never delivered what he promised.
Sonawar might be high-profile constituency, but it looks no different from other segments. Some are selling the same old wines in new bottles. Others are repeatedly vowing to extract ‘rot’ of incumbency. And a few are still eyeing their maiden victory. Amid this, election ‘rants’ are ceaselessly creating raucous around. Well, anything for power politics!