Kashmir by-poll to be a verdict on PDP’s popularity

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Mehraj KhurshidThe 25-year-old independent candidate Mehraj Khurshid Malik leaves his home at Srinagar’s Hyderpora early in the morning and heads to the outlying parts of Srinagar parliamentary constituency to campaign. He goes door to door to persuade people to vote for him. His poll pitch is a generic promise of a redeeming change to the state of affairs. But sometimes he outlines a farfetched larger purpose behind his candidature: the deliverance from the longstanding political monopoly of the National Conference and the ruling PDP.

“I am in the contest to win,” he says. “I may be a kid in politics but I have the confidence to take on Dr Farooq Abdullah”.

However, in actual fact, Mehraj is on the fringes of the ongoing by-election campaign for two Lok Sabha seats – Anantnag and Srinagar. The former was vacated by the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and the latter by the former PDP leader Tariq Hameed Karra who resigned from the seat during the unrest last year in protest against the killings of the protesters.

The main contest in Srinagar is between the NC leader and the former J&K Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah and the PDP’s lesser known Nazir Ahmad Khan. And in Anantnag, the contest is between the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s brother Tasaduq Mufti and the state Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir.

The significance of the bypoll stems from the unrest last year. Nearly a hundred killings and several hundred blindings during the turmoil have alienated people from the political system. So, the poll outcome will be a referendum on the popularity of the ruling PDP, blamed largely for the excesses. But the anger against PDP has hardly translated into any visible political gain for NC or for that matter Congress, who are accused to have presided over a similar carnage in 2010.

However, primarily, the bypoll will be about the participation of the people in the voting. Hurriyat has called for a boycott of the election in line with its traditional policy that doing so will send a message that Kashmiris wanted out of “Indian political system”. But despite the call, Kashmiris have often voted in large numbers even following the extended unrests.

For example, the three month long 2008 Amarnath land row which led to 60 killings was followed immediately by a record polling of more than 60 percent. A similar situation panned out following the 2009 unrest over the alleged rape and murder of the two women in Shopian. Such participations have often set the separatist sentiment back and turned the tide back in favour of the government.

Will this history be repeated on April 9 and 12, when Srinagar and Anantnag are scheduled to go to polls? If past is any guide, it certainly would. But there is also every chance of a widespread boycott or a drastically reduced polling considering that the people are still mopping up the fallout of the unrest.

Militancy in South Kashmir has only further strengthened since and both the encounters and the militant funerals continue to trigger massive mobilizations. On March 26, thousands of people turned up to attend the nimaz-i-jinaza of Hizbul Mujahideen militants Shahbaz Ahmed Wani and Farooq Ahmed Hura of Pulwama and Shopian respectively. What is more, Hizbul Mujahideen’s commander Sabzar Ahmad is alleged to have been present at the funeral of Wani and offered a gun salute. The video of the funeral later went viral on social media.

The prospect of boycott has already caused the state government to embark on widespread arrests of the youth and the separatist activists believed to be working to enforce boycott. In parts of Anantnag, the police has made 135 preventive arrests so far. The government has also sought additional 250 companies of paramilitary forces to ensure “smooth conduct” of the polls.

“A win for loss on the two seats will have no larger political significance. However, a win for PDP, even on one seat will be contrary to the dominant expectations,” says Naseer Ahmad, a columnist. “But a wider boycott will be yet another sign of a deepening alienation in Valley and a reminder that continuing to ignore it will only make things worse in Kashmir”.

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