When AAP held its first meeting at Sheri- Kashmir Park in Srinagar last month, there were hardly 100 people listening to candidate Dr Muzaffar Bhat. Passersby in the adjacent busy thoroughfare hardly took note. The meeting ended with little change in the ambient environment. Bhat’s passionate speech and his supporters’ energy hardly rubbed off on the prevailing apathy in the capital city.
The reaction to the rally, however, is not AAP-specific but encompasses the entire political spectrum. Established parties such as the NC and the PDP are facing a similar quandary in drawing people to their rallies, with the ruling NC worse off. Despite being considered its bastion, the NC has yet to hold an election meeting in Srinagar; neither has the PDP. And even in the countryside where rallies are held, the parties find it difficult to muster more than 500-600 people, with the biggest rallies notching only a crowd of a few thousand.
This has rendered the polls in the Valley a lacklustre exercise. Not only are people absent from rallies, there is no visible wave in favour of any party despite a strong anti-incumbency sentiment permeating the atmosphere.
“Various factors that have contributed to this state of affairs. And pre-eminent among them is the sense of aloofness from the national political scene,” says political analyst Gull Wani. “Besides, there is nothing inspiring or innovative in the prevailing political situation that could catch the people’s imagination. The political discourse has been dull and predictable.”
In the past two years, while the rest of the country has simultaneously witnessed the rise of the anti-corruption movement — a part of which transmuted into a political phenomenon like AAP — and the emergence of Narendra Modi, Kashmir has remained not only untouched but also unmoved. Yes, Arvind Kejriwal’s brand of politics has won many admirers in the Valley and Modi has scared people, but this hasn’t nudged them towards an aggressive electoral participation.
“In Kashmir, the situation becomes clear only on voting day,” says Samaan Latief, a local journalist. “We are experiencing a curious paradox. Yes, people do vote in large numbers in a majority of the areas but they stop short of participating in the process.”
The fortunes in the state are evenly balanced between the three major parties — the NC, PDP and the Congress. Though the BJP hasn’t traditionally been much of a competitor in India’s only Muslim-majority state, this year, the party hopes to leverage the Modi factor in the country’s politics to its advantage. The party expects to win at least one from the six Lok Sabha seats on offer.
The NC and the Congress have decided to go for a pre-poll alliance, an arrangement that is likely to have a significant bearing on the electoral outcome. The NC will contest three seats from the Valley and the Congress will fight from two seats in Jammu and one in Ladakh.
The PDP is contesting all six seats and has some strong candidates in the fray in the form of party president Mehbooba Mufti and former deputy CM Muzaffar Hussain Baig, who will contest from Anantnag and Baramulla, respectively. Both the NC and the PDP see the Lok Sabha polls as setting the stage for the forthcoming Assembly polls, with the NC confident of retaining power and the PDP hoping to regain it.
However, what sets the Congress apart is that the party has been in power for the past decade in the state — first in a coalition with the PDP from 2002-08, and now the ongoing alliance with the NC. Its political profile and secular credentials make it the only choice for an ally for the NC and the PDP. As of now, none of the two regional parties can come to power without the Congress’ support.
This scenario divests the polls in the state of surprise and curiosity. There is little real change to look forward to. Hence, the absence of a visible public enthusiasm.
“The reason for this is that by the very fact of its not being inclusive of separatists, the electoral process does not adequately reflect or represent the sentiment and aspirations of a large section of population, even while the people do cast their votes,” says Noor Muhammad Baba, a political analyst. “It is a democratic paradox that is peculiar to Kashmir. But this hardly detracts from the importance of the elections in the state as they are held.”