Shifting Fortunes

After recent poll debacle, Mians are going door to door to apologize for their mistakes, but will Kangan forgive them? Safwat Zargar reports

Kangan-Main-MarketWith the recent NC’s debacle in parliamentary polls coming as a shock to party that has been dominating Kashmir politics since decades, the NC legislators and party workers are gearing up to tackle the voters shift towards PDP and regain its lost image even in some of its bastions. One such campaigning can be witnessed in Central Kashmir’s Kangan assembly segment of Ganderbal district where the shift of voter turnout in Lok Sabha Elections came as a bolt from blue for National Conference. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the favourites, National Conference, bagged 17517 votes against the figure of 21124 votes polled in favour of Peoples’ Democratic Party, showing a different scenario in contrast to visible pro-NC sentiment before the polls.

The result signified an emerging trend in the constituency where National Conference’s MLA and current Minister for Forest, Environment and Ecology, Mian Altaf Ahmad, has consecutively won four elections since 1987. A constituency demarcated between different ethnicities living in the area with different political stances– Gujjars and Kashmiris – Kangan, this time, seems a tedious task for Mian, to retain the title of  being undefeated candidate.

Mian, who belongs to Gujjar community himself, enjoys a huge vote bank among population of Gujjars residing in the constituency. A law graduate, Mian Altaf is grandson of Mian Nizam-Ud-Din, a highly revered spiritual guide and religious personality. Mian Nizam-Ud-Din also successfully contested elections for NC in 1957 and 1962.

According to estimates, there are around 16000 Gujjar votes in Kangan out of the total electorate of 67000 approximately. However, unlike in the past, it doesn’t appear this time that entire Gujjar vote is with Mian. According to locals, a considerable amount of Gujjar vote has switched towards PDP because of ‘deliberate negligence of government towards impoverished families.’

A look at the voter distribution in 2014 parliamentary election supports this assumption. Some of the pro-NC bastions in constituency witnessed massive polling in favour of PDP. Polling segments like Hariganwan, Mammer, Cherwan, Akhal, Kangan town, Preng, Chatergul, Wussan, Arhama, Wail, Wail Wuder and Baba Wail saw an emerging PDP, sweeping the voter share.  During the recently concluded polls, 64 per cent of total electorate had exercised their franchise in Kangan.

“The rise in polling percentage from 52 per cent voting in 2002 elections to 64 per cent in 2014 shows the involvement of more and more people in the election exercise,” says Mushatq Ahmad, a government employee and a PDP worker from Kangan. “But, it has been due to the efforts of our PDP candidate that a huge chunk of vote has become conscious about the impact of staying away from polls.”

This is not the lone reason. According to locals of Kangan town, “there has been no development in terms of roads, health and education sector during Altaf’s tenure.” Unemployment tops the list of issues revolving around youth. Health sector, according to locals, is not adequate. Apart from main highway, roads leading to interiors of the constituency are in abject condition. In some places, there are no bridges at all, locals say.

There is another factor also. Locals say that National Conference is selectively supporting some contractors and businessmen in Kangan who in turn exploit common people. “There are few blue-eyed persons in Kangan who are close to power circles and it is them who derive most of the benefits from MLA,” says Ghulam Khan, a local. “This is one of the reasons that people don’t like NC now.”

Having remained a NC bastion since 1950s, spiritual and religious attachment of voters in Kangan has remained a decisive factor in political fortunes of the candidates. In 1967 and 1972, Mian Bashir Ahmad, father of Mian Altaf, had successfully won Kangan seat on Congress ticket. Perhaps, this is the main factor that has been able to send Mian Bashir’s son to assembly for four times in a row. PDP understands this key factor and that is the reason their counter strategy is focused on this aspect.

The most important aspect evident on ground is the dimension of ‘vote polarization’ in Kangan, with PDP focusing its strategy on mobilizing those people who usually stay away from polls. “There are around 20-30000 non-Gujjar votes who don’t participate in elections. We tried to mobilize them before Lok Sabha polls and the results proved us right,” says Bashir Ahmad Mir, who contested 2008 assembly polls on PDP’s mandate.

On the other side PDP is catering to youth vote in Kangan who according to PDP’s likely candidate from Kangan, Bashir Ahmad Mir have been ‘ignored and unrepresented.’ Another factor that can hurt NC’s vote bank is the division of Gujjar vote – that in past has been pro-NC – with PDP’s cadre claiming that “the party is sure of securing 4-5000 votes from Gujjar belt in the constituency.”

Fighting his first election, a prominent businessman, Bashir Ahmad, among the ten candidates in the fray, surfaced as a heavy weight after he gave tough fight to Mian Altaf in 2008 elections by getting almost 33 per cent votes in contrast to 55 per cent secured by latter. A preliminary analysis of PDP’s track record in Kangan shows an upward trend of PDP’s influence.

Kangan-Assembly-ConstituencyWith seven candidates in the battle of 2002 assembly elections, PDP’s candidate Ghulam Mohd Dar had bagged 22 per cent of votes against Mian Altaf’s 63 per cent vote share. In 2009 Lok Sabha Elections, PDP got 25 per cent of total votes while as NC had secured 64 per cent out of total ballot cast. Figures suggest, Kangan in 2014 looks a tough contest between National Conference’s ‘legacy’ and PDP’s wave of ‘change’, with a vigorous ‘door to door campaigning’ already on. Other parties like Congress, new players like Awami Itehaad Party (AIP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seem to be out of the race already.

The worrisome factor for PDP is boycott. According to PDP cadre in the assembly segment, a strict boycott will help NC an easy win. “In 2014 polls, it was the boycott section which voted in favour of us,” says Bashir Ahmad of PDP. “If there is a boycott in 2014 assembly polls, it will axe our vote share.”

Mian is one of the ministers of NC who faced a defeat in voter turnout in Kangan assembly segment of Srinagar-Budgam parliamentary constituency in 2014. It took a heavy toll on NC’s strategy in Kangan buttered by its previous records.

 “There is anger among people against us,” says Firdous Ahmad Dar, district president of National Conference,   while acknowledging the ‘switching of vote share in favour of PDP.’ “Our local Sarpanches and Panches have created problems for us. They have exploited people and mostly been generous to their own relatives and friends,” he says, “that is the reason people are angry with us and in some cases, voted for PDP.”

When Chief Minister Omar Abdullah after accepting defeat in Lok Sabha polls called for ‘introspection’ NC cadre in Kangan didn’t lag behind in implementing the strategy. NC workers and even local MLA himself started calling on people and received their inputs and suggestions. “We have instructions from Mian Altaf to meet people and listen to their queries,” says a party worker of NC. “The process is still on and we are in the process of solving problems of common people on short-term notices.”

But will Kangan retain its pro NC identity or will it go green. Only time will tell.

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