Election Takeaways

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After Jammu and Kashmir concluded the security-intensive Lok Sabha polls that exhibited low participation, Shams Irfan reports the tensions in the political class as the state assembly elections are round the corner

Empty polling booth at Qoimoh, Kulgam. KL Image by Shah Hilal

As the last phase of elections on May 6 concluded a massive security exercise envisaging closure of highway between Udhampur and Baramulla twice a week for six weeks, Kashmir has bounced back to business.

Lok Sabha 2019 polls were conducted after a crackdown on separatists and ban on Jama’at-e-Islami and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Top separatist leaders and their second rung leadership were either arrested or barred from meeting people. Hundreds of boys were rounded up before polls, mostly down south. At one point, police stations in Pulwama and Shopian were busy with only one thing – arresting youth. The numbers surged so much that tents were pitched inside police stations to accommodate them. Interestingly, among those who were arrested on poll eve included potential voters and polling agents too! On poll day, police stations had more visitors than polling stations.

Despite the crackdown with an avowed objective to give confidence to the voters, a large number of EVMs couldn’t register even a single vote. This happened despite the massive presence of security forces and clubbing of a number of polling booths from ultra-sensitive areas to relatively calm places. Most of the militancy prone villages in south Kashmir lacked a polling booth. Any voter, who wanted to exercise his right, had to walk at least a few kilometres distance to do that. All political parties sharply reacted to clubbing of polling booths.

“How can you expect people to walk two kilometres amid shutdown and questioning eyes to cast their votes,” asked a polling agent stationed at deserted Army Goodwill School, Balpora in Shopian outskirts, located near a garrison constructed on 250 kanals of erstwhile apple orchards.

The school housed polling booths for Shopian’s Shirmal, Sirnoo, Kanipora, Ganowpora and Balpora villages. “Do you know how far is Ganowpora? It is at least three kilometres away from the polling booth. Do you expect a voter to walk and cast his vote?” asks Suhail Ahmad, a local presiding officer who spent the day sitting under the sun along with other officers.

Ganowpora, like its surrounding villages, has seen over a dozen gunfights between militants and army since July 2016. In January 2018, three civilians were killed in Ganowpora by the army after they fired on mourners while passing through the village.

“It was practically impossible for people of that village to risk their lives and walk all the way to cast their votes,” said Ahmad.

During 2014 elections, the polling booth for these villages was installed inside a local school located centrally. People who wanted to cast their vote did so early in the morning without the fear of being seen.

In most of the ultra-sensitive polling booths across Kashmir, those who risked their lives to vote did so during early hours of the morning. Once it was day-break no vote was cast.

But more than the fear it was peoples’ indifference that made these elections a dull affair. Compared to 2014 Lok Sabha and state assembly elections, the separatist camp did not endorse poll-boycott the way they used to. It was mere symbolism this time.

The indifference towards the elections was visible even in parts of north Kashmir, where participation peaked to 34.29 per cent. Despite participation, a young boy was killed by CRPF on poll day in Kupwara’s Kralpora, a place that had brisk voting during the day. The boy’s killing was lost to the percentage as the state got busy in patting itself for handsome participation.

But as the election process moved towards Srinagar, where Dr Farooq Abdullah was contesting to retain his seat, poll percentage slid to 14 per cent. This too was possible because of a massive mobilization of voters by PC’s Irfan Ansari and PDP’s Agha Mohsin.

Unlike Baramulla, barring a few incidents of stone pelting in Budgam areas, the poll process remained largely peaceful in Srinagar. Partly, it was because of additional deployments.

Voters in queue at a polling booth. Kashmir

Voters in a queue at a polling booth.

In Zadibal area, where people were coming to vote in ones and twos, a large contingent of CRPF was stationed inside the school. In a corner, their officer sat on a chair while around two dozen CRPF men cooked dinner in a make-shift kitchen. “We were brought a few days back from Delhi. Our families are worried as they fear anything might happen in Kashmir,” said the officer who requested not to use his name. “It is good to be here.”

But more than the presence of troops, it was peoples’ indifference towards the elections that helped the day pass off peacefully.

Barring a few pockets in Srinagar, where both Irfan Ansari and Agha Mohsin have campaigned, polling booths in Srinagar city remained deserted. Interestingly, even up-town localities like Natipora, Kursoo and Sanat Nagar stayed away this time.

Focus South

More than the results, this election will be remembered for conduction polls in three legs for Anantnag in south Kashmir. This is unprecedented in India’s electoral history. This kept south Kashmir in focus throughout as polls dragged on endlessly for Anantnag seat. But as polls moved from relatively calm Anantnag district to volatile Kulgam and then finally to Shopian and Pulwama, participation dipped massively. Eventually, Anantnag constituency polled 8.76 per cent.

Barring Anantnag, campaigning in these districts was restricted to secure areas like government housing colonies, Dak Bungalows, and places near garrisons.

No major political rally was held in Shopian or Pulwama. A few rallies by PDP and NC were restricted to places near security installations. Most of the political activity in Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama was behind closed doors. Interestingly, political workers only approached those people they believed would not react or confront.

The most challenging part of this elections campaign, according to one PDP worker, was to identify people who would listen to you calmly. But there were miscalculations as many people did not want to listen to them. Till a day before polling, there was no sign of any election activity in Shopian or Pulwama. Whatever little was done happened inside the secured walls of Government Housing Colony, Pulwama, where party workers and senior leaders interacted with each other to see how to convince others to come out and vote. Almost no efforts were made to convince or reach out to neutral voters as it was both risky and futile.

But all their efforts were dashed on May 3, when three Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants were killed in an encounter in Imam Sahib (Shopian). One of them, Lateef Tiger was Burhan Wani’s companion and last survival from Wani’s most known group picture. He was from Dogripora in Pulwama, while the other two belonged to Shopian belt. With just two days left to polling in Shopian and Pulwama, political parties saw their efforts go in vain as massive gatherings were witnessed at militant funerals. “Who would come out to vote now?” said Waheed Ur Rehman Parra on the night of the encounter. “This election is gone now. All our efforts have gone waste because of this encounter.”

And he was not wrong. Two days later, when Shopian and Pulwama went to polls, barring a few pockets in Pampore town, almost every polling booth was deserted. Pampore saw five per cent polling as NC’s candidate Hasnain Masoodi lives in Khrew. On polling day Masoodi went door-to-door asking people to vote. They responded generously and it helped him get back into race against Congress’ Ghulam Ahmad Mir.

But in rest of the areas, especially in Shopian and Pulwama towns, political parties struggled to find polling agents. Those who volunteered did that by putting their lives in complete risk. Three days after polling concluded for Shopian and Pulwama districts, suspected militants fired at two pharmacists in Zainapora village. Later, it was known that the duo were PDP’s polling agents in their area. “A political worker is akin to a criminal in Kashmir now,” said an NC worker who was sitting inside a polling station in Shopian.

Workers Election

With ordinary people missing from polling booths in central and southern Kashmir, the entire exercise remained a contest between political workers, or party loyalists only.

Unfortunately, their participation will ultimately decide the outcome of the election in Anantnag and Srinagar. So any party with a good number of loyal workers has chances to win.

Unlike in north Kashmir, where young and enthusiastic workers and voters camped outside the house where Sajjad Lone was meeting delegations in Harai village of Kupwara, in south people are detached from the election process altogether.

There were no massive rallies in any part of south or central Kashmir as were seen in Handwara, Bandipora, Uri, and Rafiabad. Not only commoners, but even workers were also missing from the scene in most part of Srinagar and Anantnag. But despite that, the key to these seats remains with political workers only, as people stayed away.

“This election will be decided by us,” said a Congress’ political worker proudly. The party had sent him especially to volatile Qaimoh village from Anantnag town to ensure no bogus voting takes place.

Across twelve polling booths located inside a government school in Qaimoh, only seven votes were polled out of over 11000 votes. All of these votes were cast by polling agents of different parties. No voter from outside had come to cast his vote. “Even getting six polling agents for twelve booths was a challenging task for political parties,” said a Congress’ polling agent. “People are not convinced by rhetoric anymore. They know all our promised fall flat once elections are over.”

The political parties had a common ground this time: save Kashmir.

Save Kashmir

While NC, PDP, Congress and Peoples Conference (PC) centred their poll campaigns on the threat to Article 370 and 35A, BJP targeted all of them for misrule and corruption. In all three small rallies that Congress’ senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad held in Anantnag, he talked about safeguarding Article 370 and 35A. He targeted BJP and Modi for using muscular policy on Kashmiris.

Even G A Mir’s speeches were aimed at telling people how bad it would be for Kashmir if Modi returns.

On the other hand, NC to use the threat to Kashmir’s special status as its main agenda. In every rally, Omar Abdullah presented NC as the true guardian of peoples’ sentiments. Pressing issues like highway ban, massive crackdowns in south Kashmir, Jama’at ban, civilian killings, nocturnal arrests, deliberate delay in the movement of perishable goods didn’t figure in any political party’s campaign.

Voters hiding their faces donning helmets in Qoimoh. KL Image: Shah Hilal

The issue of Kashmir’s identity and special status remained the key theme in almost all political rallies that took place in the region. Even efforts were made to visit door-to-door and “educate” people why saving Article 370 and 35 A is necessary for Kashmir’s special identity. These people were convinced why voting is necessary to achieve that goal.

Even Er Rasheed, who is fighting his first Lok Sabha election, used Kashmir’s special status as the main poll plank to draw peoples’ attention. He did succeed in attracting huge crowds at his rallies, mostly among youth from Kupwara district, who get attracted by his fiery speeches and down-to-earth approach towards politics. He would like to tell people that he is one among them and belongs to no political dynasty, unlike others. From being a spoiler who was sure to upset PC’s vote bank, Rasheed has successfully raised himself to the status of a game changer, or an equal contestant who is serious about his candidature. But is it going to materialize into votes only results will show on May 23. The same theme was carried by NC across the state hoping to rekindle its cadre and traditional voters. The idea was to present the party as the only hope for Kashmir.

But the most interesting transformation was of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti who reinvented herself after PDP-BJP government collapsed in 2018. She not only tried to reach out to militant families but also was vocal about human rights violations committed after her reign was over. In most of her interviews, Mehbooba went on to question both Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrike. This has irked BJP’s supporters across India.

Like her political rival Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba too left no stone unturned in defending Kashmir’s special status. Both Omar and Mehbooba warned Modi that if Kashmir’s special status is fiddled with, it will end Kashmir’s connection with India. Such kind of statements by Omar and Mehbooba kept BJP on its toes in Delhi. In almost every political rally, Modi attacked Omar and Mehbooba, without mentioning their names, for defending Kashmir’s special status. Even at occasions, Modi went to the extent to call them anti-nationals. But despite Mehbooba desperate attempt to salvage her image, her “toffee” and “milk” remark is still fresh in peoples’ minds. In most part of south Kashmir, even PDP’s core voters stayed away from the voting, as they felt betrayed by Mehbooba’s hallow slogans and her allying with BJP. “She will curse BJP during elections but will ultimately ally with them for power, leaving our lives in danger again,” said a PDP man from Pulwama.

But given the lukewarm response to save Kashmir call, both Omar and Mehbooba are short of issues in upcoming assembly elections. However, the issues people want them to talk about don’t figure on their priority list.

But for political parties in the state, especially NC, PDP, Congress and even BJP, the low participation in recent Lok Sabha polls will force them to rethink their strategies for the upcoming assembly election.

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