Wrestling North

Among 16 assembly segments going for polls in the third phase, seven fall in the Baramulla district. Except Uri, BJP hasn’t fielded any candidate from the other northern segments apparently to clear decks for its allies in its Mission 44+. Bilal Handoo tours the six assembly segments to profile the biggies in fray and their chances in poll process

A poll mood on display. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
A poll mood on display.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

A big hoarding of Narendra Modi overlooking the entry point of Pattan town in North Kashmir has a message for onlookers: Chale chalo Modi ke saath. But the mood in the town still fresh from ‘mourning’ for its departed legislator appears ‘reticent’ to get swayed by “acche din” campaign. On December 9, when this part of Baramulla district votes in the third phase of polling, an ‘emotional vote’ favouring ‘change’ is likely to “dominate” the ballot – an apparent ground mood will tell you that.

After the demise of four time MLA Pattan Iftikhar Hussain Ansari this year, Peoples Democratic Party fielded his son Imran Ansari, 42. A postgraduate in political science with a religious education from Damascus, Imran was initially PDP candidate from Zadibal. “Unless good people join mainstream politics, there will be mess,” he believes. But mere joining politics won’t do for Imran. Primarily he is in the fray to ‘reclaim’ the seat his late father won in 1983, 1996, 2002 and 2008.

Political flags are fluttering in the main market with election convoys mounted with loudspeakers are riding rampant in and around Pattan. Youth on vehicle rooftops (some hanging from windows) are relentlessly pitching slogans. But the poll mood appears sullen in Palhallan.

Further down the north, a stream of vehicles is creating buzz near Sangrama where the poll battle appears trilateral.

With total 10 candidates in fray, Sangrama is likely to witness a contest between PDP’s Basharat Bukhari, NC’s Muhammad Yaqoob Wani and Congress’s Shoaib Nabi Lone. The segment is divided into three areas: Wagoora, Kreeri and Khoi.

Sangrama will be a litmus test for the sitting MLA Basharat Bukhari after anger broke out in Wagoora on Dec 27, 2012 following the order passed by commissioner secretary revenue for appointment of Tehsildar at Kreeri. This forced hundreds of people from Wagoora to stage protests against what they termed “an open conspiracy against them”. An erstwhile broadcaster in Radio Kashmir, Bukhari defeated Congress’s Lone by 1330 votes in 2008.

A son of slain PDP leader and erstwhile education minister GN Lone, Lone Jr has always maintained that he joined politics only to expose his father’s “real killers”. He has openly maintained that militants didn’t assassinate his father “but he fell to a political conspiracy”.

Lone got elected from his father’s constituency as an independent candidate in 2006. Since the PDP refused him a party ticket, both the NC and INC provided him “tacit support”. In the face of Bukhari’s “dismal” report card, Lone Jr (who is said to be very close to Ghulam Hassan Mir) stands his own chances.

The controversial Mir (enjoying ministerial berths from last 30 years) is the only known face of his Democratic Party (Nationalist) seeking another term from Gulmarg. A three-time MLA Gulmarg, Mir is known to stay close to power centres. His image, however, suffered a dent after reports from New Delhi accused him of conspiring to topple Omar government with the “support” of army in 2010.

Accused of favouritism people believe that only those close to Mir are benefited in Gulmarg. Slamming Mir’s selective approach, a contractor-turned-politician, Abbas Wani contesting on PDP ticket from Gulmarg is highlighting “Mir’s failures” to woo the voters.

But the main contender against Mir is NC’s firebrand Mustafa Kamal who openly says “Mir was brought up in Army’s lap, IB lent him its hand and Congress made him the minister”. Both Mir and Kamal duo has represented the constituency for last 30 years now. A two-time lawmaker from Gulmarg (1987 and 1996), Kamal lost to Mir in 2008 with a margin of 6, 441 votes.

Other than Gulmarg, the pro-boycott belt Sopore is also going to polls on December 9.

Sopore has always remained the hot-bed of Kashmir politics with strong presence of Jamaat-e-Islami. Its one-time star candidate Syed Ali Geelani won the seat thrice: in 1972, 77 and 87. The resonating pro-boycott call in the town triggered a change with the incumbent NC MLA from Sopore Mohammad Ashraf Ganie pleading Geelani to withdraw his election boycott call. In 2008, Sopore witnessed a voter turnout of just 19.95 per cent with NC’s Ganie defeating his nearest rival Congress’s Abdul Rashid Dar by 1064 votes.

Sopore which is reportedly on BJP’s radar for its 2,200 registered migrant votes apparently unnerved NC’s Ganaie who fears the low turnout would be a major setback for the Hurriyat leader: “I appeal to Geelani sahab to reconsider his boycott call in Sopore.”

Without fielding any candidate from Sopore, BJP has apparently extended full support to Sajjad Lone’s Peoples Conference which has given the ticket to Mohammad Ramzan Baba from Sopore. Already Independent candidate Irshad Rasool Kar, whose father Ghulam Rasool Kar was a Congress leader, has announced that he would support the BJP if he wins from Sopore.

Interestingly, keeping in view the threats posed by pro-boycott section, the voters in restive Sopore, Sangrama, Baramulla and Pattan constituencies have requested election officers that the indelible ink should not be applied on their fingers after they cast vote. (Pertinently, people who cast vote in North Kashmir during parliament elections this summer were hounded, searched and stripped by groups of masked youth at various places.) Amid all this, militant outfits like Jamiat-ul-Mujhadeen and Al-Shohda Brigade have allegedly put up posters at different places in Sopore town and have asked people to refrain from poll process.

Hogging headlines for ‘bad reasons,’ north Kashmir’s Rafiabad will go to polls on December 9. The segment witnessed PDP General Secretary Mohammad Dilawar Mir’s conviction followed by an embarrassing audio leak of senior congress leader Abdul Gani Vakil. Amid controversies and absence of poll boycott campaign, the segment is likely to witness a huge voter turnout.

The incumbent NC legislator Javaid Dar from Rafiabad who divorced PDP and ended up defeating Dilawar Mir in 2008 by 200 votes has scored poorly as an MLA during his six years stint. An MoS in Omar’s cabinet, Dar, a management post-graduate had promised hope against Mir’s three decadal ‘redundant’ rule. However serious anti-incumbency factor might mar Dar’s another legislative stint.

Dar is pitted against Mir’s son Yawar Dilawar Mir, a law graduate from ILS Pune and LLM from Nottingham University UK. A debutant, Mir Jr is likely to find it tough to address to his father’s rural support base.

Other than Dar and Mir, there is ex-cop Khurshid Ahmad Khan in the fray contesting from PC ticket. Khan was allegedly involved in the firing incident near Chahal in which Hurriyat leader Sheikh Aziz and others were killed during Muzzafarabad chalo in 2008 Amarnath land row. He was then SHO Gantamulla. Later that day, angry protesters torched his house at Khawja Bagh Baramulla. The fourth man in the fray is a “seasoned disgrace” of Congress – a title earned by Abdul Gani Vakil after his audio leak. Without winning even a single election, Vakil is contesting again to break his losing streak.

In the garrisoned Baramulla town, a torn up hoarding of Yale University alumnus Salman Anees Soz, 44, is promising “Zyada roozgar, myari taleem, behtar sehat” along with “Ek nayi umeed, ek rooshan mustaqbil”. If the mood on the ground is any parameter then Soz Jr stands his chance over PDP’s Javaid Baigh (a nephew of Muzaffar Baigh). “He [Salman] looks promising,” says a local. “Without talking big, Salman seems very much focussed on public welfare.”

A former World Bank employee, Salman returned to Kashmir after 18 long years in 2012 and soon sniffed “despondency” in the air. But he says, “I am optimistic and will visit your villages and learn from your experience”.

A debutant Salman admits Congress faces a degree of anti-incumbency, but he seems to have an edge in the town. In peripheries, with sizeable Pahari population, however, PDP’s Javaid Baigh (a Pahari) has an upper edge.

Deep down in north across the Pir Panjal Bridge in the border town of Uri, the mood is festive. A strong wave of anti-incumbency and ‘badlav’ is sweeping over the gateway to Kashmir. Uri looks all set to witness an ‘intense’ triangular contest between NC, INC and PDP. Congress’s Taj Mohiudin is fighting to retain the seat for a third time. However NC’s Mohammad Shafi Uri and PDP’s Raja Ajaz Ali Khan have made the contest very tough in the segment with 318 registered migrant voters.

Since 1957, this northern fringe seat has been NC bastion winning 6 out of last 10 elections. Shafi Uri won the seat for five consecutive terms from 1972 to 1996. But Taj defeated Shafi in the last two elections. Taj defeated Shafi in 2008 with 1,879 votes. (Taj polled 24036 against Uri’s 22157 votes; while as PDP’s Shabir Ahmad Mangral stood third with 1550 votes.)

Uri’s demographic is split evenly between Paharis, Gujjars and Kashmiris. Shafi and Khan are Paharis. Taj is a Gujjar. These communities are rivals in politics. Taj has successfully gained the support of Gujjar voters and his success has been mainly attributed to the support of this community. However the anti-incumbency factor this time might see some Gujjar voters deserting him. On the other side, NC’s Shafi Uri with a substantial support of Pahari and Kashmiri speaking voters will be trying to gain from Taj’s anti-incumbency factor which might see some voters changing their loyalty.

In a public meeting at Uri’s Gawalta, the controversial congressman hogging headlines for not all good reasons is criticising NC’s Shafi, saying Uri witnessed more development during his 12 years stint as legislator than Shafi Uri’s over 40 years tenure. “All Shafi did was to build a road to his ancestral house in Garkote,” another potshot at NC’s veteran send Taj’s audiences into bouts of laughter and applause.

A law graduate from Kashmir University, Mohammad Shafi Uri, a seasoned politician from Uri doesn’t shy away to call the incumbent state health minister Taj as an ‘army stooge’ and believes the present elections would witness complete white wash of the Congress. “When for the first time Taj arrived in Uri area in 1996,” says Shafi Uri in a rally, “he came in an army vehicle and till date he has the understanding with the army.” Terming NC a “protector” of state’s unique identity, and assures “holistic development” of Uri if elected by the people.

Unlike previous assembly elections, this time PDP has fielded a crorepati cop-turned-politician Raja Ajaz Ali Khan with a strong base in areas like Shahkoot, Pringal, Limber, Tathamulla and in other Pahari belts. His entry is likely to divide votes in the constituency which will directly affect both NC and Congress.

During his election rallies, PDP candidate Raja Aijaz Ali Khan accuses Taj of massive corruption and not employing the locals in departments across Uri. Ali is quite active in social media and uses it to interact with young voters. Besides being a new chief executive of Jammu and Kashmir Pahari People Movement, Khan is believed to get many Pahari votes to fulfil the long pending demand: granting ST status to Pahari community.

As the rush of vehicles busy campaigning for political parties from Uri to Pattan is building, the six segment of Baramulla district looks all set to determine the fate of veterans and novices in the fray. On December 9, it is another tug of war between pro-boycott and pro-polling belts.

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