With massive tensions at ground zero, PDP and Congress candidates pitted for the South Kashmir Lok Sabha seat are busy in a lethargic, low-cost, low key campaign, reports Akaash Hassan.
At the funeral of Hizb militant Tauseef Ahmad Wagay, killed in Chadoora on March 28, thousands had assembled in Kulgam’s Kanjikula-Yaripora. With the coffin draped in a green cloth, his elder brother, Irshad Ahmad led his funeral prayers.
After the Jinaza, Irshad chanted slogans of Azadi. With a brief pause he intoned: Boycott, Boycott. The response was massive and thunderous: Election Boycott.
The slogans reverberated in air till Irshad begun his sermon, telling people to promise that they will not vote. Thousands raised their hands in favour of the boycott.
Farooz Ahmad, a student of Government Degree College Khanabal, after returning from the same funeral rebuked his uncle Mohammad Shafi and left him embarrassed, literally, in front of his associates.
Shafi had asked Farooz to attend a meeting that was scheduled to be held in the evening at their house. It was going to be presided over by a former MLA who is now campaigning for his party in the by-polls.
Shafi was surprised by Farooz’s attitude as, earlier in 2014 elections, he did cast vote cheerfully along with his friends.
“That was the time when I was hopeful of change. I proudly campaigned for the party, but I am no more approving that,” he said. “I would not let anyone vote in my family and if they do, I will leave home.” Farooz’s shift offers the larger perspective in the poll-bound 4-district south Kashmir.
Campaigning for the upcoming by-polls for Islamabad and Srinagar parliament constituencies is relatively calm and confined mostly to the highly secured venues and state owned bungalows.
“You will make me win the elections but not by putting your lives in jeopardy,” said Tassaduq Mufti, brother of incumbent Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and PDP’s candidate for Islamabad seat, in his first close-door address to workers at Dak Bungalow, Khanabal. An idealist cinematographer, this campaign is his first major interaction with the people who supported the party his father founded. He is pitted against G A Mir, a Congress man, who is supported by NC.
“We were told not to risk our lives and work as covertly as possible,” says Mohammad Abbas, PDP’s worker since last seven years. “It is all different now from previous elections.”
Two weeks after the campaigning started for the by-polls, no party has held a big rally. They get into longer convoys on secured routes, drop and talk hurriedly and leave. Mostly they take the audience along with.
In Khanabal Government Housing colony, lawns of residential quarters are brimming with party workers. “It is no easy job for you and I know people are watching your actions,” a PDP leader told one such modest gathering in his Khanbal lawn. “Go in evenings to the house of our cadre and sympathizers and tell them to make sure that they vote and not fear for their security. This is not to get any chair as we are running the government but it is about our prestige.”
On March 25, Congress and NC managed to hold first rally outside Dak Banglow.
The rally was held in a school ground of Shangus but not more than five hundred people were seen. Two days later, PDP held a rally in Kokernag. But the numbers were not more than the rally of NC-Congress.
This has bewildered the rally organizers. “There are three layers of workers,” district president of a party explained. First line comprises people holding some position of the party in villages and Tehsil. This line is directly connected with the MLA’s of their constituencies.
The second line comprises people who are connected with first line. This is a bridging line between MLA and the commoners and is most important and huge in number.
Third layer comprises people who vote either after they receive or expect some benefit from the party or are just sympathizers.
“This time only first line is active,” the party leader said.
Fayaz Ahmad Lone, a village head of a party describes the current poll scenario as “entirely different”.
“It is tough for me to seek votes in my village that saw sixty-five percent voting last time,” Lone said. “There were long queues outside polling stations here last time but now I fear to tell anyone, especially youngster, to vote for our party,” he says.
But the fear is not exclusive to the ruling PDP workers alone. All parties sail in the same boat.
“It is looking like space for pro-India mainstream is shrinking after the 2016 unrest,” admitted a Congressman. “We are seeking votes on the pretext that how defectively the present government is working.”
“Upcoming by-elections are an opportunity for the people to defeat the fascist forces. This is the high time for the electorate to decide their future which is in jeopardy due to the hidden communal agenda of the PDP-BJP,” G A Mir, the Congress candidate, said in his first open public rally in Shangus.
Seemingly, the people make not much distinction between the contesting parties. “This is the net difference between 2008 and 2017: last time, people who hated NC supported PDP,” explained a local reporter. “Now people who are unhappy with PDP do not go to NC, they sit silent, instead.”
This constituency consisting of four districts: Islamabad, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian, which is divided into sixteen assembly constituencies.
The constituencies where average to good voter turnout can be witnessed are Devsar, Doru, Kokarnag, Shangas, Pahalgam, Wachi, Shopian and Noorabad. However in Islamabad, Kulgam, Rajpora, Pampore towns, voter turnout is expected to be lower. While as Tral, Pulwama, Homshalibug, Bijbehara is believed to witness very low turnout.
Six candidates are contesting for Islamabad: the main contestants Ghulam Ahmad Mir of INC-NC and Mufti Tassaduq of PDP, in addition to Sanjay Kumar Dhar of Rashtriya Samajwadi Party (S), Ghulam Mohammad Wani of All J&K Kissan Mazdoor Party, and Independent candidates, Rakesh Koul and Sajad Ahmad Dar.
G A Mir is two times MLA from Dooru constituency and last time lost by less than one hundred votes. NC candidate was not far behind of Mir in the elections as well.
If anti-incumbency sentiment prevails, Dooru will get Mir a major lead. Similarly, in Kokernag that Congress had lost after a long time, possibility of Mir getting a fair share is not ruled out. Shangus, Devsar (with Congress) and Noorabad, Pahalgam and Homeshalibug (with NC) – the five assembly berths that PDP lost to its rivals in 2014, are vital to NC-Congress alliance. But it has strong PDP pockets too.
However, in the lower turnout constituencies, share is predicted to be more in the hands of PDP
“The impact of the boycott call will be a deciding factor,” says a political analyst. “Less voter turnout will go against Mir and in favor of PDP because the constituencies where good turnout can be expected are in the pocket of collation candidate.”
This was also stated by G A Mir while addressing a workers gathering.
PDP is trying to lure the migrant votes with coalition partner BJP and considers a single vote chunk can intervene decisively.
Last week BJP’s MLC, Sofi Yousuf held a convention in Purkhu migrant camp where, seeking votes for ally PDP.
“You all should ensure, I appeal that your vote goes to PDP candidates for Anantnag and Srinagar seats,” Sofi Yousuf urged Kashmir Pandits. “Your vote should never go to Congress or NC as they were in hand while your community faced exodus.”
Interestingly both the grand alliances are concentrating towards down-south, not up south like Pulwama, Shopian and major part of Kulgam. “Even if they campaign, it will make not much difference,” a senior government functionary said. “Barring Rajpora, we do not expect a respectable turnout and that trend was exhibited in last assembly election.”
Lawmakers are genuinely apprehensive. “The fear is not of the gun but of the few stone pelters who disrupt everything,” says a lawmaker whose cavalcade faced the wrath of angry youth while he was returning from his constituency. “Gunmen can be tackled but what could be done with these youth.”
The security grid is on tenter-hooks. Increasing incidence of encounters and clashes between police and crowds in follow-up, has kept the security busy as politics is apparently out and away.
In last fortnight around 140 youth were arrested, mostly from Pulwama district. Accused of fomenting trouble, they are in police stations right now.
It remains to be seen if these arrests are to ensure incident free polling or, as many alleged, to improve participation by getting their families into “barter”. Separatist Hurriyat Conference made similar allegations, last week.
The only thing that makes situation different is that ruling party. Traditional campaigning apart, ruling PDP has set up a cell of University students.
“They call our workers and enquire from them about the grievances,” said a PDP lawmaker who is monitoring the cell, “this helps us understand problems so that future strategy can be decided accordingly.” He admits that this move was taken after party realized that campaigning would be mostly low-key affair.