The Dark Horse

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With chief minister Ms Mehbooba Mufti contesting to retain her father’s seat, her key challenge is to overcome Congressman Hilal Shah’s influence. Having sizeable voter-base in Islamabad, Shah won’t make it a cakewalk for PDP boss, reports Bilal Handoo

Hilal-Shah

Behind banners and buntings in Islamabad, a congressman is boasting: Come poll verdict, and CM Mehbooba would even lose her security deposits. The man next delivers a scathing verbal attack on his main opponent—the PDP boss and the incumbent J&K chief minister—in a series of indoor meetings, where poll adrenalin is getting high sans spilling over to streets of the indifferent town. In the run-up to the upcoming summer contest, Congress’s Hilal Shah is predicting a thumping majority in Islamabad.

The 41-year-old Shah invokes his 2014 flood works to almost perfection to woo his voters. The congressman recalls how he waded in troubled waters to provide succour to hundreds of flood-affected families. Hearing this, many heads nod in affirmation — a silent acknowledgment to the man whose rise on Islamabad’s political landscape is both chequered as well as intriguing.

His detractors plus several townspeople say Shah’s rise started in chaotic nineties when he worked as a “runner” for some self-styled militant outfit. “Those runners were known for throwing grenades at the paramilitary pickets,” remembers an elderly man in old Islamabad.

Then, Shah was a peppy youngster, “who also did some actions”. With emergence of Ikhwan in Islamabad, Shah was seen getting aligned with the militia brigade. Perhaps the same possibility made many to castigate state Congress chief GA Mir for nominating the “stained” Shah for Islamabad by-polls.

But without touching his chequered phase of life, Shah introduces himself as a trained engineer. “I was in Bangalore between 1993 and 1998,” he says, “studying engineering.”

In one of his indoor meetings, Shah trains guns at his key rival Mehbooba Mufti for allying with BJP — a popular ‘poll cry’ against PDP chief in the town. “In last polls,” Shah tells a small gathering, “Muftis sought votes to stop BJP’s march in valley. But they only ended up cheating their voters by embracing Hindu right-wingers twice.”

By hitting at PDP’s perceptive Achilles heel, Shah seemingly rides on an apparent town sentiment.

But years before becoming Mufti’s main contender besides accusing her party for resorting to “politics of opportunism”, Shah had his stints with contractor’s jobs. He even calls himself some type of a social worker. “I even got an award from PDP’s AR Veeri for my social works in 2006,” Shah claims. He jumped into politics in 2008 when he fought as an independent candidate from Islamabad assembly seat. “A year later,” he says, “I joined Congress because of its secularism agenda. The party guarantees overall development of J&K besides representing people’s aspirations.”

All these years, Shah created his own Congress constituency in Islamabad and rose to become state Congress’s general secretary. But perhaps he was eagerly waiting for his Eureka moment that came in fall 2014.

With parts of Islamabad marooned, Shah was seen wading in floodwaters, rescuing and providing relief to the people. “I almost distributed relief to 14000 families,” Shah claims. The ‘good work’ clicked, polling him 11,000 votes in 2014 assembly elections. He emerged first runner up.

Behind his rise, many say, is his style of “grass-root” politics. Like an astute politician, he doesn’t shy from playing messiah cult of downtrodden. Post-floods, when high court ordered bulldozing of Jhelum bank encroachments, Shah visited Khanabal’s boat colony, demanding government to allot 10 Marlas of land and compensation of Rs 20 lacs to each family affected by the demolition of the colony. The move, many say, triggered a sympathy wave for him in the community.

Now, again contesting on Congress ticket, Shah is predicting a thumping majority against PDP-BJP’s “doublespeak politics”.

“For Islamabad,” he tells his sizeable audience, “the upcoming election is the right time to defeat RSS and its ally PDP that betrayed their electorates.”

But defeating “Madam”, a sitting chief minister, is perhaps no doddle for the ex-contractor. With Islamabad’s by-polls becoming essentially a ‘battle of perceptions’, Shah is apparently hoping that the town should boycott. The boycott call coming all the way from Hyderpora is already resounding in the town. But police and other agencies are reportedly on their knees for undoing any attempt of ‘troublemaking’.

“Shah has an edge in Islamabad periphery,” says a PDP worker, “because of his flood works.” But not everyone is buying Shah’s peripheral vote-bank presumption. “People have short memories,” says one NC’s foot-soldier. “What Shah did in 2014, ended in 2014. Now his vote-bank stands diminished as NC’s Iftikhar Misgar is also taking his sizeable votes this time around.”

Last time, the constituency with 83574 votes saw total 39.73% voter turnout. Even though, Shah lost 2014 assembly elections to late Mufti by just 6000 votes, but he made his presence felt. Against Mufti 16,983 votes, Shah polled 10,955 votes. Now with 84081 votes (42924 male and 41156 female), the contest has apparently shifted toward Mehbooba — “as her victory is vital for sustaining the alliance”.

“This time Mehbooba will lose her deposit, too,” Shah never tires telling his audience. “People are very angry because of her handshake with RSS.” Last time, he says, Mufti hijacked Hurriyat agenda and got votes on pretext of opposing BJP wave in Kashmir.

“Now, people want to teach PDP a lesson in a democratic manner,” he thunders. “I can myself gauge a soured mood against Mehbooba and her party in Islamabad.”

The upcoming by-election, Shah says, is a fight against divisive politics of RSS and BJP.

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