Political parties were ‘uninterested’ in the elections for one or the other reason, so were the voters. Finally, when the process threw up ‘winners’, NC and PDP are as interested in the Mayor and his deputy as the commoners are, reports Shams Irfan
Immediately after 73 successful candidates took oath as councillors for Srinagar Municipality Corporation (SMC), the race for the coveted Mayor and Deputy Mayor’s chair dominated the debates behind curtains. The race itself started in the shadow of Governor Satya Paul Malik’s controversial pre-poll statement, where he said, “Srinagar will get a foreign educated Mayor for the first time”. The hint was a loud and clear pointer towards Junaid Azim Mattu, who quit National Conference (NC), to contest the polls in apparently his friend Sajjad Lone’s company.
However, after all, political parties (except BJP) cried foul, Malik backed off from his statement and assured that the contest is “free, fair and transparent”. Though Malik’s controversial remarks might have been lost in newsy Kashmir, a lot of questions still remain unanswered.
But when the final results for Srinagar were declared, all assumptions and predictions were momentarily negated as a new breed of ‘king-makers’ emerged as independent candidates. And there were lots of them in Srinagar as 53 out of 73 contested wards went to independents.
One of them was independent candidates Junaid Azim Mattu, formerly an NC spokesperson, and once a close aide of Omar Abdullah. After facing a sort of a crisis within the party as a section of urban NC kept him at an arm’s length, he won from three wards: Rawalpora, Solina and Bud Dal. On Friday, Mattu filed his nomination papers for the post of Mayor of Srinagar. He wrote on his twitter: “(Sajjad Lone’s) Peoples Conference (PC) and allies will be supporting independent candidate Muhammad Saleem Lone for the post of Deputy Mayor. Time to gear up for CHANGE – to deliver on our promise of a developed, clean and progressive Srinagar”.
Despite two main regional political parties, NC and PDP boycotting the elections, the race to Mayor’s chair is keenly watched by everyone. And what is more interesting is that both the parties are involved in the race, something that Malik had predicted in his controversial tweet.
In a recent interview to online news portal The Print, former Chief Minister and PDP’s president Mehbooba Mufti took a dig at the contestants: “In a democracy, space is not created; it is given by the people. Since these elections were held under fear and suspicion, mostly rogue elements came forward. A lot of money was spent to lure people, but despite that, none of the parties was able to attract good persons.”
Mehbooba’s statement soon attracted reactions from her political rivals. And the first one to react was separatist turned politician Sajjad Lone, a minister in her cabinet till yesterday, who wrote on Twitter: “If they don’t contest then contestants are rogue and lured by money. And then in the same breath, Mehbooba Ji talks about democracy. Selective democracy for the elites.”
But the war of words surrounding ULB elections didn’t end there as Lone termed her interview as: “One of the most shameless statements. The standards she uses to judge contestants. By those standards, she was a rogue when they contested in 1996 and 2002. How many votes were polled when they were in Government in 2002. Does she not remember that.”
Within no time rebel, PDP lawmaker Imran Reza Ansari jumped into the debate to second Lone and wrote on his twitter: “@MehboobaMufti ur interview in print is shameless. U along with NC threw contestants to hungry lions in the belief that they will be devoured. God is great. They came out unscathed. And now u call them rogue and lured by money. How shameful can u get?”
The war of words on Twitter took a twist when Mayoral contender Mattu joined Lone and Ansari to bash Mehbooba and wrote: “Madam @MehboobaMufti’s hypocrisy reaches a new low. While her office is directly calling elected candidates – she calls them names here. I’m as “rogue” as you were in 1996 Mehbooba Ji. Your judgements are not only petty but also reek of shame and a guilty conscience.”
But in the real world, according to sources, PDP has 18 independent berths who contested as proxy candidates, and are still loyal to the party’s high command. “They will be backing Congress’ Mayoral candidate Ghulam Rasool Hajam,” said a senior PDP politician on condition of anonymity. “This we are doing in the larger interest of the people to keep BJP and its proxies out of Srinagar.”
Hajam, a little-known politician who won from Zainakot as a Congress candidate, has all of a sudden emerged as a “mutual” choice for Mayor. In an election on the non-party basis, Congress is the biggest party. NC is supportive of it and, ditched by BJP, PDP will come naturally to the same fold.
But there is another important face in the entire post-election process, Sheikh Imran, a businessman turned politician who successfully contested from Nishat municipal ward. “NC is backing Imran through his proxies to help him become Deputy Mayor,” said a senior politician who is privy to the development. “But it remains to be seen how many votes he can actually garner actually.”
But with the key of Mayor and Deputy Mayor’s seat in independents hands, the race is not only getting interesting but a bit murky too.
After NC and PDP boycotted the election process, it seemed that the contest would be between two national level rivals: Congress and BJP. But that was not the case as none of them could manage to win the desired 38 wards required for the Mayor’s post. This gave new independent faces an unprecedented edge over Congress (16 wards) and BJP (04 wards). For seasoned politicians, these independent councillors, despite having no political background or vote bank, as most of them won unopposed or with just a few votes, are now sought by everyone.
“In last few days, I have been approached by almost every party with lucrative offers,” said a 25-year old independent candidate who contested elections for the first time. “But I told them plainly that I am here to help people, not make money or become part of any power-game.”
This independent candidate, who requested to remain anonymous, claims to have been offered between Rs 10 and 12 lakh for her support by a “big political party” for her vote. “They wanted me to support a particular person for Mayor’s post,” she said.
But she is not the lone independent candidate who is being approached by various people with lucrative offers. Another independent candidate, who owns a small shop in the old city, claims to have been approached with such offers. “I never thought I would be so important all of a sudden,” he said with a grin on his forty-plus face. “But telling you frankly, I am enjoying this moment when everyone treats you like a VVIP.”
This candidate, who requested anonymity, admits having been offered around Rs 10 lakh by a politician for his support to a particular candidate for Mayor’s post. “I cannot tell you who approached me, but more than one offer is there,” he said cautiously.
As the equations were still being worked out in Srinagar, State Administrative Council (SAC) met in Jammu under Governor Malik’s chairmanship and came up with the Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2018.
The amendment paved the way for the election of Mayors and Deputy Mayors of the Municipal Corporations and Presidents and Vice Presidents of the Municipal Councils/Municipal Committees through secret ballot.
“This (amendment) clearly shows how the system is helping horse-trading. Else what was the need to amend a foolproof law which was in vogue since long,” said Ali Mohammad Sagar, former Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj. “But we are not surprised as Governor has already made public who will be the next Mayor of Srinagar.”
But Sagar is quick to make it clear that his party (NC) has nothing to do with the ongoing election process.
“These eleventh-hour changes are made to suit their (BJP’s) agenda,” said Sagar, who makes it clear that he is speaking as an “ordinary citizen” and not as an NC leader. “It was evident from his (Governor’s) statement (about Junaid Mattu becoming Mayor) that what kind of election process this is.”
Same thoughts are echoed by Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) Vice President Ghulam Nabi Monga, as he terms recently concluded ULB elections as “not credible”. “There are winning candidates (migrants) who do not know even a single voter from their constituency!” said Monga. “And Governor’s statement about Srinagar’s Mayor leaves less to the imagination about the entire election process.”
Monga alleges that things were already put in place behind the scenes as is evident from Governor’s remark. “So where is the election?” asks Monga. “He (Governor) owes an explanation to the people of Kashmir.”
Before the dates for ULB elections were finalised, Congress’ local leaders had two meetings with the Governor in Srinagar. In both the meetings, Congress delegation asked the Governor for a “conducive election environment where voters can come out on their own and per cent goes up”. “This would have helped these elections look credible. How anyone claims victory when just 4 per cent people vote!” asks Monga.
But instead of improving the situation on the ground to make elections look credible, Governor Malik chose to amend the rules to keep everyone guessing!