A stark difference between the elections in the Kashmir Valley and the rest of India is the absence of large scale political campaigns and people rallying behind their leaders.
The streets wear no sign of political activism. No banners. No loud talks. Military presence and police surveillance are a given in the Valley. Perhaps, as people say, less control over the armed forces led to the degeneration of mainstream political parties.
Pulwama, Kulgam, Shopian, and Anantnag — the four districts of Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency — were once the bastion of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mehbooba Mufti. Now, the party struggles in these areas.
The party, formed in 1998 by Mufti Mohammad Syed, became a dominant player in the early 2000s and broke the monopolistic structure of Jammu & Kashmir politics, which was dominated by the National Conference (NC) and its leader Farooq Abdullah.
Mehbooba, Mufti Syed’s daughter, won the first Lok Sabha seat for the party in 2004 general elections. The failure of the NC to get rid of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), deal with rising unemployment and failed attempt to gain greater autonomy for the region, led to the rise of the PDP. It won the 2002 state elections but the party failed to build a significant pathway while in power. Its self-rule promise, aimed at constitutional empowerment of the state and finding a solution to the Kashmiris problems without diluting India’s sovereignty, failed. It is now struggling to deal with the broken promises. The Congress could not deliver, too.
In the subsequent state election, no party won a clear majority. The NC and Congress formed an alliance and formed the government in 2009.
A series of incidents between 2008 and 2015 led to a rise in unrest in Kashmir. Some include the Amarnath land dispute issue (transfer of land to Amarnath Shrine Board to set up temporary shelters for Hindu piligrims), where the BJP called for economic blockade in 2008; the alleged rape and murder of two girls by India paramilitary forces in 2009; severe crackdown by the armed forces that killed 110 people in 2010; and the hanging of Kashmiri separatist Mohhamed Afzal Guru in 2013. Rebel groups became more active in South Kashmir’s hilly area. All this led to the fall of the NC and Congress.
Mehbooba Mufti won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat by 65,417 votes in 2014. The same year, her father and party patriarch, Mufti Sayeed, won the Anantnag Assembly seat, and formed an alliance with the BJP in early 2015.
Many insiders felt it was an unpopular decision and deceived people’s trust. The alliance angered many in the Valley. Though the party had a reconciliatory intent, it did not pan out well for it as the BJP was unwilling to compromise on its stand on Kashmir. “Mufti Sayeed had a larger vision to implement former prime minister Vajpayee’s vision to restore peace and autonomy in the region. Hence, the alliance made sense then,” a party MLA who wished to remain anonymous said. “He thought the current prime minister could change things for Kashmir. But we utterly failed and the party now faces a tough task.”
In 2016, Sayeed died and Mehbooba Mufti succeeded him as chief minister, vacating the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat. Clashes erupted after security forces killed separatist leader Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, in a gun battle in July 2016. During his funeral, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Tral area of Pulwama where he came from and the capital Srinagar in open defiance of the Army and police lockdown. This deepened the rift between the locals and security forces, and the angst against the ruling government became more evident. The strained relationship ended in 2018, with Article 370, which grants special status to the state, becoming a bone of contention for the alliance. The Pulwama attack in February, and the police and Army crackdown post that, cast a shadow on the party’s future. Not many are ready to cast vote.
Cause for concern
Pulwama and Shopian in the Anantnag Lok Sabha, which goes to polls on May 6, are crucial for the PDP. But the low voter turnout is a cause of concern. While the first phase saw 13.61 per cent voting, the percentage dropped to 10.3 per cent in the second phase on April 29. People expect a single-digit turnout if the arrests and search operations continue unabated. Police detained over a 100 youth from villages around Pulwama and Shopian districts and booked them under the Public Safety Act ahead of elections.
Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, endorsing NC’s Lok Sabha candidate Hasnain Masoodi in Pulwama, promises to abolish the Public Safety Act in the state if people vote the party to power.
Sixty-year-old Gulam Mohammad Bhat in Pinglena village in Pulwama says the polling booth was 2 km away and with such a fragile and tense situation, he may think twice to get on street and vote. And with the police and Army arresting local youth, he wishes to mark his protest by not exercising his franchise.
Citing security concerns, the Election Commission clubbed many polling booths. This means people have to travel 2-6 km to vote. “Low voter turnout means the party (PDP) will lose, while its the other way around if more people vote,” Suhail Bukhari, a PDP MLA said. “If the party cadres and people in the party stronghold cast vote for us, we stand to gain.”
While Mehbooba Mufti contests from PDP, Congress party’s state chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir is contesting against her, and hopes to win the seat with anti-PDP, anti-BJP sentiments. Masoodi, a new face, may stand a chance with low voter turnout.
“The Congress candidate will gain with the political situation and fragile environment in South Kashmir. The margins will be low with low voter turnout,” Ajaz Ahsraf, a political science professor in Kashmir University, said.
“People boycotted the panchayat elections before and many won the seats unopposed. People staying away from polling booths is not new. A long period of militancy and police crackdown work against the democratic process,” the professor adds.