The election season is the time when the Kashmir Valley comes into its own with all its troubled baggage: turmoil and torments laid bare, conflicts and contradictions on full display. The region turns into a smouldering cauldron of ideological battles shot through with violence. And at the centre of it is the separatist call for the boycott of the exercise, which plays into the process, interferes with its operation and distorts it. So much so, the political parties that start as favourites end up on the losing side and the ones plagued by anti-incumbency and a reputation of non-performance return to power again.
And as the election exercise ends, separatists declare victory, congratulating people for the boycott, or in case a large number of people cast their votes, curse the administration for “engineering” their participation.
The ongoing General Election, which will be followed by the Assembly polls, began with all parties holding fast to their traditional positions. All the separatist factions called for a boycott and launched a discreet campaign to dissuade people from voting. Surprisingly, the moderate Hurriyat faction led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, which in recent years had chosen to ignore the polls, also decided to join the boycott bandwagon. And major mainstream political parties such as the National Conference (NC, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Congress and the BJP went about working up a muckraking discourse about each other rather than engage in a serious debate about the challenges and problems facing the state.
But it is the operation of the boycott factor that has thrown the election into sharp relief and, in turn, the situation in the Valley, both in its historical and contemporary context. Separatists contend that the polls in Jammu & Kashmir are sold by New Delhi as a vote for India, so boycotting them sends out a contradictory message. But the call for boycott creates a curious electoral challenge for the political parties: what matters for them is the percentage of boycott and also whose supporters will boycott. As more people boycott the exercise, more the chances of distortion in the outcome.
For example, in 2008, the ruling NC won all the eight Assembly seats in Srinagar by a margin of a few thousand, a few hundred or a few dozen votes. NC leader Farooq Abdullah, who contested from Sonawar in Srinagar, his residential neighbourhood, won by just 94 votes. He polled 7,018 votes, while the runner-up, PDP candidate Sheikh Ghulam Qadir Pardesi, got 6,924 votes.
In the subsequent bypoll following Abdullah’s shift to the Centre, NC leader Mohammad Yasin Shah defeated the PDP candidate Mohammad Ashraf Mir by just 50 votes. The two candidates polled 9,306 and 9,256 votes respectively. In four Srinagar constituencies, the winning NC candidate polled less than 5,000 votes.
Boycott hits both ways. “If people living in a specific area in a constituency boycott the polls, it matters whose potential supporters the boycotters are,” says senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter. “Conversely, for people in the areas that vote, it matters which party is strong there.”
Akhter blames the 2008 poll boycott for the party’s loss of eight seats in Srinagar by wafer-thin margins, which consequently pushed it to second position in the tally and away from power. If the PDP had won even half of the seats in the summer capital, it would have pushed the party’s tally to 25 in the 87-member Assembly, up from 21, and reduced that of NC to 24, down from 28, thereby making the former a strong contender for power.
This realisation has persuaded the political parties to build their election strategies around the boycott factor. They have invited blame for discouraging voting in the areas supporting the rival party and aggressively promoting it in areas where they have a strong support base. They have accused each other of organising pro-Azadi protests, stone-pelting and even alleged violent attacks to force an election boycott in areas dominated by the other party.
The election campaign in south Kashmir has been eye-opening. Wherever the politicians went for campaigning, more often than not, they were greeted by protesting groups of youth, who pelted stones and shouted pro-Azadi slogans. At some places, the youth barred the movement of political processions, forcing the parties to take a detour.
The build-up to polling day on 24 April was marked by suspected militant violence. There were four attacks: In the first one, an NC activist was targeted at Khrew, and two of his bodyguards were killed, besides the two attackers. Two attacks in Tral led to the deaths of a village numbardar and a sarpanch and his son. And on D-day, an attack on a polling booth killed polling officer Zia-ul-Haq in Shopian. Barely 28 percent people cast their vote in south Kashmir, whose outcome will now be deeply influenced not only by the boycott but which party’s potential supporters boycotted.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah was quick to blame the PDP for enforcing the boycott. “Boycott has always benefited the PDP and it is evident from the fact that Mehbooba Mufti won the Lok Sabha polls from Anantnag in 2004 when there was only 15 percent polling, while (NC’s) Mehboob Beg won in 2009 when 27 percent voting took place,” he said at a press meet in response to accusations that his party, being cadre-based, is the major beneficiary of the boycott. “You can do your own calculations about who benefits from the boycott.”
However, PDP patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed accused the NC of “orchestrating reckless violence” to impose the boycott to its advantage. “NC MP Ghulam Nabi Rattanpuri could not visit even his village. How is it possible that there was a boycott in Shopian and there was 70 percent polling in Noorabad?” he asked at a rally. “I am sure the emancipated voters of Srinagar will not allow NC to re-enact the gory gambit of orchestrating reckless violence and using various devious means to ensure poll boycott, as it tried to do in south Kashmir.”
Akhter talked about how many people from Tral had gathered to welcome Mehbooba in the run up to polls. “But three days ahead of polling day, two attacks in one night killed three people,” said Akhter, adding that unlike 2008, south Kashmir was otherwise peaceful this time. “Barely a thousand people cast their votes in Tral.”
Does this mean that boycotts are only a function of the mainstream political rivalry? “No, boycotts have nothing to do with pro-India politics,” says Hurriyat G spokesman Ayaz Akber. “How can this be? People have boycotted on Hurriyat’s call and to express their rejection of India’s control of the state. This is why everywhere the pro-India politicians go, they are greeted by protests.”
According to insiders, the Hurriyat’s Geelani faction distributed 3 lakh anti-poll pamphlets in south Kashmir, appealing to the people to stay away from voting “in honour of the thousands of martyrs to the Kashmir cause”.
Similarly, the JKLF and the Hurriyat faction led by Shabir Shah actively led a boycott campaign. “This time, we preferred to do it discreetly. More than the leaders, we let our ground-level workers do the job,” says a JKLF member who is part of the boycott campaign. “Every day, we sent 20-30 workers across to various villages, who address people in mosques or talk to them at their homes.”