With 24 candidates in the fray, the triangular contest is bipolar inside. Though pinching each other for one or the other thing, JKNC and the PDP are contesting against the 2019 decision-making, reports Masood Hussain

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After retaining Kashmir as part of its genetic makeup for decades and getting its ideation into action once the party got adequate numbers in the Lok Sabha, the rightwing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) eventually skipped a contest in Kashmir. In central Kashmir, the Srinagar constituency that hugely changed after the delimitation “gerrymandering” felt the BJP’s absence. Its absence is being experienced as badly by the neo-converts to the party as the commoners feel it. “We would have won the Anantnag-Poonch while being in the real contest in Srinagar and Baramulla,” BJP Jammu and Kashmir president, Ravinder Raina told Kashmir Life. “We were ready but the party decided not to contest and we respect it.”

BJP presence, Kashmir’s old political pundits say, would have triggered a massive participation in a historic low-poll region but the ruling party preferred party over the larger goals.

BJP’s decision to stay away from the contest was announced by Home Minister, Amit Shah in Jammu who said the lotus bloom in Kashmir can wait and the party was more interested in winning the hearts. “He knew it that Kashmir is historically a lotus eater,” an NC worker said. “They knew the intense hate would be embarrassing for the party.”

Apni Party founder Syed Altaf Bukhari accompanied his candidate M Ashraf Mir to the Jamia Masjid in May 2024.

Raina admitted that even though the party does not contest on its symbol, the party exists in Kashmir. “I assure you that there is no possibility that a candidate wins without our support,” he asserted, admitting that they are supporting the “like-minded” and the “patriotic” parties.

The “like-minded” allies of the party are cautious enough to not being formally endorsed by the BJP. They require a benefit of the doubt, the political grapevine suggests. This piquant situation landed the BJP in a catch-22 situation. It is not contesting. Unlike in the rest of the country where it is the undoing of Article 370 that is being showcased as a major achievement, the party could not drum up any support for this slogan in Kashmir. Even the development bogey has hardly worked in Kashmir, historically.

Still, it intends to show its presence. Since its allies do not want it to support them publicly. The outcome was interesting: for symbolic reasons, the BJP workers came out in a well-protected cavalcade, telling “people” to vote for anybody other than the JKNC, PDP and Congress. The Congress is not in contest, unlike PDP and JKNC. This adds a new angle to Kashmir’s elections. “Once, some people campaigned against the elections and called for a boycott and now we have political forces seeking a selective boycott,” a college teacher observed. “What is the difference by the way? Is not it the same idea thrown upside down?”

A Wide Spread

Srinagar has too many candidates but the real contest is between JKNC’s Agha Ruhullah Mehdi and PDP’s youth leader, Waheed Parra. Business tycoon, Syed Altaf Bukhari’s post-2019 political venture, Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party has fielded Mohammad Ashraf Mir, a city resident, unlike the two biggies, and is expected to get the share of the drummed-up influence within and around the city.

It is too early to foresee how the electors would respond, but the voting patterns of the “new Srinagar” would seal the fate. Srinagar is no more the 2019 constituency that comprised the Budgam, Srinagar and Ganderbal districts. It now starts somewhere in Shopian, then moves through four assembly segments of Pulwama (erstwhile Anantnag constituency) and then gets into Budgam where it has three of the five constituencies (two have been added to Baramulla) and then it gets into its erstwhile territory.

The delimitation has not only doubled the length of the constituency’s spread but given it enough electors from diverse demography that even if Srinagar city retains its pre-2019 attitude towards the EVM, it would hardly make it roaring news. At the same time, however, it will make different ends of the constituency compete with each other so that if there is somebody slightly powerful at the centre of it, he can wrest the seat.

A Contest Within

A key factor in the BJP’s decision-making about not contesting from Kashmir was to create a situation in which the regional parties would fight against each other instead of fighting together against the BJP. The idea was not an anathema within the so-called PAGD, a loose political alliance aimed at undoing the 2019 decision-making. There were individuals from both parties, who, on different occasions within and outside their parties, would refer to the “liability”. It happened so quickly that Kashmir could not realise its undoing.

It did not, however, follow the script entirely. Though the JKNC and PDP are nipping and pinching each other, they both are targeting BJP and its allies, calling them “proxies”, now by name. It is the BJP that is the real mover and shaker of electoral campaigning in Kashmir. In a way, it has been a clever move by the BJP to get a lot of free publicity in Kashmir while the “like-minded” take a direct hit. The high-pitch campaign has reached a level where some of the informal allies have started formally acknowledging their association and understanding with the ruling party. Bukhari said in clear terms earlier that he does not wish to deny the fact that he works with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose help he got in getting many of the Kashmir youth out of jail; protecting the land resource and the resident’s right to their jobs in the government.

The contest in Srinagar has almost the same old kind of slogans and only the party flags distinguish them from each other. Jeet Hamari Insha Allah (We will win by the grace of God) is everybody’s slogan though it originally belonged to the erstwhile Muslim United Front, the 1987 pan-Muslim alliance that was the last majority resort in Kashmir to get into mainstream, constituents, most of whom are banned. The JKNC has revived its age-old Jis Kashmir Kou Khoon Say Seancvha – Woh Kashmir Hamara Hai (the Kashmir that has taken our blood belongs to us only). PDP, which stole the greenery from the rightist flags of the past and the pen-inkpot from erstwhile MUF, is reimaging the slogan-set of the recent past: Na biknay wali PDP, na jhuknay wali PDP (PDP is neither on sale nor willing to prostrate before the powers), a slogan set of 2010 unrest. The rest is ‘wildlife’ – Aya Aaya, Sher Aaaya (Here came the lion).

They all have their party songs, social media managers and a huge mobile squad that ferries them from place to place. Resourceful candidates have better venue management and the least resourced opt for road shows. Within apparently not much of the ideological divide around, the two mainstreamers pick points from the recent past. Waheed Parra loves playing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, Dr Farooq Abdullah even used the most popular slogan of peak militancy – Ae Mard-e-Mujahid Jaag Zara, Ab Waqt-e-Shahadat Hai Aya (get up, you crusader, it is time for your martyrdom). This does impact the ground as these slogans are too deeply rooted in Kashmir.

Powerful Candidates

There are too many candidates but the real contest is between the JKNC and PDP. Even Apni Party candidate Mohammad Ashraf Mir will poll better. The only advantage Mir has over two other major contestants – Agha Ruhullah and Waheed Parra, is the assets. A businessman, Mir has declared assets of Rs 32 crore which is too much in comparison with Agha’s Rs 3 crore and Parra’s Rs 32 lakh.

Agha Ruhullah Mehdi after visiting Khanqah e Moalla in Srinagar in May 2024.

However, Agha and Parra share an interesting ascent in politics. Both of them have come from Congress upbringing. They both joined politics as minors and are now grown-up adults and mature politicians. Agha, who belongs to the influential Shia Agha clan of Budgam, joined politics within a year after his father, Agha Mehdi, a Congressman, was assassinated along with his three security guards in Magam on November 3, 2000. When Dr Farooq helped him ride a massive sympathy wave in the 2002 polls, he was elected and became a minister. Since then, his “minor” entry has remained an issue and still is being talked about.

Parra was too young to be part of Ram Jethmalani’s Kashmir Committee when he was seen rubbing shoulders with the biggies. Son of an influential Congress activist, the family knew Mufti Sayeed for a long time. Eventually, Parra found this party in 2013 as the best space and was very visible during the 2014 assembly election. Initially, Mufti was keen to see him work at youth level. However, after he passed away, Parra found enough space to get into the decision-making set-up of the party, now led by Mehbooba. He was appointed to oversee the sports activity of Jammu and Kashmir.

Ideologically, both of them are mainstreamers but feel strongly about special dispensation within the federation. Both are intelligent, straight forward with inherent capacity to communicate with the youth. Agha is traditional to his approach and Parra is slightly unconventional.

Post-2019, Parra was initially arrested like others and later a case was registered against him. He went in for a long time. Unlike Parra, Agha was not touched but that did not deter him from being vocal. Both exhibited an interesting tendency towards their parties. Parra resisted resigning from PDP, even though it was once the talk of the town. Agha gave up his spokesperson status but did not leave the party and continued criticising his party. Even today, Agha never retweets his party actions and activities, not even that of his leaders. His last re-tweet was a party activist’s condolence. Both of them, however, believe their parties are antidote to the “onslaught” by BJP and their “proxies”.

At some point in time, in the last five years, both of them had grown almost equal, if not bigger, than their partiers – at least on the newspaper front pages – Parra because of the case and detention and Agha for his fierce statements. They, however, choose to retain their loyalty.

Interestingly the duo is contesting in a space where they have a level playing field. Agha lacks huge access to the Shia vote bank because his key area of influence is part of Baramulla. Parra has impressive party influence in Pulwama but not in Srinagar or Ganderbal where NC has a better cadre presence. At home turf, he has a sympathy wave too as he was the only District Development Council (DDC) member who won from jail but was denied a chance to take oath of office.

The Campaign

The campaigning by the parties is just the routine. However, the major difference is that the parties are now visible in Srinagar’s old city, the Shehr-e-Khas as well. Though no major gathering was ever reported in Srinagar, parties tend to get into mohallas and interact within close, well-protected spaces. This is unlike the periphery where good gatherings are seen and the parties are moving around in huge campaign caravans.

Credit goes to Altaf Bukhari who visited Jamia Masjid recently and it became a huge TV story. Normally, the political class goes to the Hazratbal shrine for special prayers but it was for the first time that a mainstreamer got into Jamia. The visit came within days after Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s major statement.

“The government of India made drastic unilateral changes and complicated the dynamics of the Kashmir issue in 2019. The alterations have further disempowered people,” Mirwaiz said in a statement. In the changed circumstances, issuing a boycott call does not seem to carry the sense or yield the impact as in the past. People of Jammu and Kashmir, who have been baptised by fire from decades-old conflict, have enough political maturity and wisdom to know what best to do in the current situation. I trust their judgment.”

In the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, the main contest is between JKNC’s Agha Ruhullah Mehdi and PDP’s WAheed Parra. Apani Party’s Mohammad Ashraf Mir is expected to poll better, especially in the city and its immediate periphery. KL collage by Malik Qaisar

Parra welcomed the statement terming it a “welcome step” to “break the atmosphere of silence”. Encouraged by the statement, Altaf Bukhari decided for a road-show, three days later on May 6. He started from Khanyar and reached Jamia Masjid where he praised Mirwaiz for never supporting violence. Once the Apni Party received a public mandate to serve, he promised the Shehr-e-Khas would regain its status as an ancient city with a centuries-old rich culture and civilization. “I know this city has been neglected over the past seven decades, leaving its residents grappling with tremendous challenges, but we will ensure that no Government in the future overlooks the aspirations and welfare of the Shehr-e-Khas,” he said.

“We go door to door and I might have moved most of the city,” Parra said. “My idea is not to win an election but to talk to the people. I must contribute to breaking the cycle of silence.” His party leader also visited some localities and shrines and interacted with the people around.

The Speeches

There are no ferocious speeches around. Unlike his leader, Agha’s campaign is simple. A strong votary of the “unity” (a reference to JKNC and PDP contesting together), his speeches are solely focused on the events dictated by the undoing of Article 370 and its impact on identity, resources and life. He sees the happenings in the backdrop of the accession in 1947 and the special constitutional arrangement. He sees Lok Sabha as a platform where Kashmir can voice its concern and lament the loss dictated by the body. Agha hopes against the hope that “wrongs” can be corrected.

At the same time, however, the JKNC star campaigner, Omar Abdullah does talk against their bête noire, the PDP, especially focusing on the 2014 BJPDP alliance that brought BJP into Kashmir.

Parra is unconventional. On the day of filing his nomination papers, he got a chance to move through Lal Chowk, the city square that has evolved as a tourist spot and is talked about by everybody as a post-2019 iconic spot. He made a speech and had an impressive good shoot that reportedly unnerved the system. He later told the youth to consider the general elections as a “referendum” to “send New Delhi a message”. This led the election officials to issue him a notice to which he submitted his explanation.

PDPs Waheed Parra in a truck, an old-style election campaigning

Human rights and resource exploitation are the constant in PDP campaigning. “The sense of suffocation needs a vent. The detentions, thought policing, political vacuum, all of this needs to be addressed. All our issues are with Delhi and, for that; we need to be in Parliament. We need representatives who will not be silent bystanders but the voice of the people,” Parra said. “We have one generation in graves, one in jails and another implicated in various cases. We have to gather our courage and walk to the polling centre.”

The focus of his campaign is his emphasis on seeing the election as a means to “break the silence” that has been “enforced” in Kashmir since 2019. He seeks votes for future generations in which they must have the right to live with dignity with control over their lives, assets and jobs. His party leaders, especially Mehbooba Mufti wants Delhi to understand the consequences of the 1987 rigged election (an issue that hit JKNC and the Government of India at the same time) and encourage fair polls. At the event of the conclusion of the campaigning, she held a presser highlighting the use of the police force in the alleged harassment of her party’s electoral officials. Besides, she is telling people that they must vote for Parra because “they (Delhi) wanted him to be in jail and we must send him to the parliament (instead)”. Though asserting that the election is not PDP versus JKNC, PDP people insist the PAGD was decimated by sort of “arrogance” within JKNC, a situation in which even Dr Farooq Abdullah claims, he was not part of.

However, Altaf Bukhari and his party leaders ensure they do not spare their opposition. In Shopian, he said Parra is involved in militancy and should have been in jail but is free and contesting an election. In Srinagar, he said Dr Farooq Abdullah looted the Jammu Kashmir Cricket Association and the case is established and still he is not in jail. “I also want that he does not go to jail because this will make him claim the status of a martyr,” Bukhari told a gathering in Kangan. “I want the case should stay like a Damocles sword hanging over his head.”

Outcome

It is too early to offer any idea about the outcome of the process. Nobody knows how the new generation of first voters who number around 85000 will vote. It is too early to predict how more than 52000 migrant voters will see an election in which BJP does not exist. The constituency has more than 17.44 lakh electors. The candidates as well as the Election Commission (EC), through its Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme, are making efforts to reach out to different sections of society within and outside Srinagar.

The street wisdom suggests there are greater chances for JKNC to retain the berth. At the same time, however, it is as open as air. It is helping the PDP to reconnect and prove to its bitter rival JKNC that PDP is down but not out. For a commoner, victory and loss are immaterial because neither of the two is a formal Modi-ally. They both have had a line of communication throughout.

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