There is very little sign of election activity in Anantnag, which goes to bypolls on April 12, except inside the Housing Colony government quarters at Khanbal, home to mainstream politicians of various parties. The usual banners and posters are largely absent elsewhere in the parliamentary constituency, which comprises Kulgam, Anantnag, Shopian and Pulwama districts of south Kashmir. What stands out at many places in rural areas, in fact, are signs written in chalk on walls asking people to stay away from polls, besides pro-separatist slogans.
“Two of my neighbours were killed in firing last summer. I have been voting for the PDP but this time I will avoid polling,” says Ghulam Mohammad, who owns a large dry-fruits showroom at Lethpora Pampore. “In the last elections the PDP had promised development, but they brought killings of civilians.”
The low-profile campaign is explained by unrest in South Kashmir and the presence of militants in several areas. In an atmosphere of violence and protests, parties have refrained from holding large rallies. Since the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani, dozens of local youths are known to have joined militant ranks, and separatists as well as militants have asked people to stay away from the polls.
The constituency was represented by Mehbooba Mufti, who vacated it after taking over as J&K chief minister. The election is being seen as a straight contest between Mehbooba’s PDP and the Congress, which is being supported by the National Conference, although the fray is of six candidates.
The PDP has nominated Mehbooba’s brother Tasaduq Mufti, who joined the party after the death of their father Mufti Mohammad Saeed and is now being portrayed as the party’s future. Tasaduq, 45, is banking on the draw of his sister and PDP veterans including ministers and MLAs. Mehbooba has toured the constituency twice in the last one week to win support for him.
“We will engage with all youths involved in stone-throwing protests and will hear out and resolve their grievances for the development of the state,” Mehbooba said after meeting PDP workers at Dak Bungalow.
“We don’t know Tasaduq Mufti. We only know Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba,” says Mohammad Akbar, who runs a business in Anantnag town. “Although Tasaduq has the advantage of goodwill for the Mufti family, the unrest and killings of civilians have made the task difficult for the PDP. The party is banking on its network of cadres in those areas where people will come out to vote. Also, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has done good work for South Kashmir and that will help his son.”
PDP chief spokesperson Mehboob Baig, himself a former Anantnag MP, is confident that the PDP will repeat its performance of the last bypoll, when Mehbooba won with a huge margin. “The NC and the Congress have not worked in the past and will fail this time too. They are so afraid that they have formed an alliance, but they will still fail.”
Ten kilometres from Anantnag town is Vehil Nagbal village of Pahalgam, an assembly segment of the Lok Sabha seat and represented by the National Conference. Here, the BJP’s lone Muslim legislator from the Valley, MLC Sofi Yusuf, has assembled a few hundred workers on an open ground under tight security. “We don’t have an election alliance with the PDP and each party has a different agenda, but we are running a coalition government and all our workers and cadres will vote for Tasaduq Mufti as we want him to represent all of Kashmir in Parliament,” Sufi says, while workers applaud. “You vote for PDP and forget them. I will repay you for your votes.”
Dulat Khan, a former sarpanch of Vehil Nagbal, says the BJP MLC had brought workers from all over the constituency to show the PDP his strength. “From our village itself, only a few people attended the rally. Here, people are angry about the PDP-BJP alliance and will not vote for them,” he says.
In Quimoh and Khudwani villages of Kulgam district, pro-separatist slogans are on the walls everywhere. “We have stayed away from elections in the past and this time, too, nobody will vote for mainstream politicians. They have no conscience; even after killing dozens of youths they want people to vote for them,” says Imtiyaz Ahmad of Khudwani. “On polling day, people will observe civil curfew.”
While PDP leaders are seeking votes for development, Congress and NC leaders are highlighting the alliance of the PDP with the BJP “and the RSS”. “The PDP brought the RSS into Kashmir. The Congress is the only party that has the potential to stop the RSS agenda,” says Congress candidate Ghulam Ahmad Mir, also PCC president. He claims the Congress has a strong base in the constituency and is now boosted by the support of the NC which, he says, will make it difficult for the PDP.
“The PDP has sensed defeat is now using fear tactics as it wants people to boycott the polls. They know that if people vote in good numbers, the defeat of the PDP candidate will be certain. This is a golden chance to teach the PDP and the RSS a lesson,” Mir says.
“The only objective of the PDP is that voters should stay away from polling.” Besides, he alleges, the PDP is using the official machinery to garner votes. “Police and district administration officials have a history of influencing people and voters,” Mir says.