Knotty North

With contestants successfully engaging more people than south and central Kashmir, the elections in North Kashmir is heading towards a high poll. But intense campaigning has made the outcome an enigma for all, reports Bilal Handoo

 Election-Campaign---Sajad-Lone

North Kashmir parliamentary constituency that runs parallel to the LoC from Kaman Bridge in Uri to the newly laid culvert over fast flowing Neelum in Teetwal, offers a musty picture. Neither of the bigwigs in fray seem to enjoy a cakewalk when the area goes to polls on May 7. Interestingly neither of the contestants is a toothless tiger.

Baramulla constituency has 1152956 voters and has both participating and poll boycott pockets. Of the 1612 polling stations 1018 are hypersensitive and 498 sensitive indicating the sensitivity of the terrain involved in the last phase of the Lok Sabha in Kashmir.

Incumbent Parliamentarian Shariefuddin Shariq is a teacher turned politician. A neighbour of Engineer Rashid, Shariq for nearly three last decades has been shuttling between the parliament and the state assembly, representing people on NC mandate.

His voters believe Shariq will retain the seat. They assert the high-poll border assembly segments of Karnah, Gurez and Uri besides Handwara will give him a decisive edge. His party is hawking his report card revealing he took part in 41 debates, raised 58 questions in five years and maintained 88 percent attendance in Parliament. Those who do believe in this theory say Shariq is facing the real test, this season.

NC’s opponents have many things in support of their argument. The rising graph of violations of human rights during the NC regime is at top of the debate. The area has witnessed serious instances of civilian killings and arrests. “The NC is now harping on PDP and BJP bashing vote,” says Mushtaq Ahmad, PDP worker from Pattan. “But the fact is: they have already lost the battle owing to their mishandling of situation and arrogant stand on things.”

Shariq stands pitted against Muzaffar Hussain Baig, once Kashmir’s top tax paying lawyer who eventually became the Deputy Chief Minister. In 2008 Baig had retained his Baramulla seat unlike Shariq who lost Langate to his neighbour, Engineer Rashid.

But there are many others in the contest other than the PDP and NC. PC’s Salamuddin Bajad and Awami Ittehad party’s founder Er Rashid too have their own stakes in May 7 polling. In fact both of them have been pulling huge crowds in the last few days.

In a way, Bajjad and Rashid are sourcing their strength from the same fountain – the Peoples Conference that slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone had founded with interestingly Baig also as one of its members. PC’s Sajad Lone had personally contest the 2009 election and polled a respectable 65403 votes. Apparently in an exercise aimed to test waters for the assembly elections later this year, PC fielded Bajjad, a former officer in the Radio Kashmir Srinagar. A native of Keran, Bajjad might be novice to politics, but is no underdog. Bajjad is expected to manage most of the Gujjar vote.

Er Rashid is also from the PC stock. He has his influence in and around Langate, the constituency he represents. There is possibility of Rashid expanding his influence to other constituencies given his pro-active role and a robust media management.

While neither of them is a winner of the North Kashmir constituency, both are playing spoilsport. They will upset the balance which can impact the outcome. Both are getting votes – Bajjad more than Rashid, but nobody knows whose votes they would cut.

There are eight others. While they are not to win, PDP Baig has claimed they are actually sponsored players of NC. They are contesting, according to Baig, with an intention to divide the mandate in areas favouring Mufti’s party.

Baramulla was represented by NC eight times and by Congress thrice. In 1967 and 1971, Baramulla was represented by Congressman Syed Ahmed Aga. From 1977 onwards, NC took it over: Abdul Ahad Vakil (1977), Khwaja Mubarak Shah (1980), Saifuddin Soz (1984, 1989, 1998).  In 1996, however, when NC did not contest, Congressman Ghulam Rasool Kar won the seat. Abdul Rashid Shaheen won it (1999, 2004) and then Shariq took over (2009).

Interestingly, this will be the first time that Baig would be contesting on PDP mandate. He failed to make to the parliament thrice in past. Situation, this time, sounds apparently not so difficult.

Baramulla-Constituency

Numerically, PDP lacks a better place. On basis of the existing incumbency in the 15 assembly segments that make Baramulla, NC dominates seven (Karnah, Kupwara, Handwara, Rafiabad, Sopore, Gurez and Sonawari), Congress two including that of its associate member Ghulam Hassan Mir. PDP has only five seats and Engineer Rashid has one. Given the coalition is pitted against PDP and others, the NC: PDP: AIP ratio is 9:5:1.

But situation seems not working on the 2008 mandate. It sounds some sort of change has overtaken things, almost everywhere. While PDP has been campaigning using NCs mistakes, the ruling party has been showing itself not in a good picture. Last week when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was speaking to a crowd, his very famous minister Mohammad Akbar Lone slapped a young man. While it was announced from the dice that he was a PDP disrupter, he eventually turned out to be a potential entrepreneur who was seeking Omar’s attention. Though apologies were issued, the slap has echoes in most of the Rafiabad’s surroundings.

What is interesting about Baramulla is that it has a sort of ethnic heterogeneity. There are Gujjars, Paharis and Kashmiris. While Bajjad would be the principle beneficiary of the Gujjar vote, PDPs Baig is expected to sweep the Pahari votes and part of Gujjar votes as well. The question is whom will Kashmiris vote?

The four main contestants have clear advantages and disadvantages. While Bajjad has a Gujjar advantage, Baig has a Pahari advantage, an expectation is that Congress will be more supportive of Baig than Shariq. The trend that was exhibited in south cannot miss the north. A major pointer to this was Ghulam Nabi Azad’s reluctance to campaign for Shariq. People in know assert that Azad has a perfectly good relationship with Baig and the latter obliged him by not speaking against him in Baramulla. Political pundits believe he will get substantial vote share from Uri and Bandipore. The disadvantage is to Rashid and Bajjad. Both are restricted to a belt other than PDP and NC that exist almost in all the constituencies.

The constituency has a very strong poll boycott belt. It is mostly urban: Sopore, Baramulla, parts of Pattan. Even though a few contesting candidates have managed to get into these areas and talk to people, they may not be able to get their vote.

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