“WHO KNOWS when the next Assembly election will be held? This is the right moment to contest elections and move forward for the people,” says former J&K state minister Taj Mohiudin.
The Congress leader, who is a former MLA from Uri in north Kashmir, is not alone.
Mohiudin is among five former ministers, an ex-MP and over 20 ex-MLAs and MLCs, all heavyweights cutting across party lines, who are contesting the first ever District Development Council (DDC) polls in J&K — the first political step in the newly created Union Territory after the state was bifurcated in August last year.
“People want roads and electricity, and they need representatives that they can go to. We can’t hide, we have to contest elections and go back to the people. In a Union Territory, a DDC member is as good as an MLA in the former state,” says Shoaib Lone, a former MLA from Baramulla who is contesting on a J&K Apni Party ticket.
The first of the eight-phase DDC polls on November 28 drew an unexpectedly high turnout of 51.7 per cent across J&K, including 40.6 per cent in the Valley. The second phase was more muted with an overall turnout of 48.62, and a low voter count in south Kashmir pulling down the Valley’s number to 33 per cent.
Following the state’s bifurcation into the UTs of J&K and Ladakh on August 5, 2019, the Centre has repeatedly said that J&K would become a state “at an early opportunity”. But several senior leaders in the DDC fray “don’t see any point in waiting indefinitely”. Some say they are merely taking up the responsibility placed on them by their political parties.
“I do not consider this a step down from my former position because of the urgent need to address the political void. One cannot keep waiting for the Assembly elections to be announced,” says Mohiudin, who is contesting from Parenpillan in Uri, which is a fraction in size of his former Assembly segment and will go to polls on December 10.
Apart from Mohiudin, the former ministers who are vying for a DDC seat include Sham Choudhary and Shakti Parihar from BJP, Shabir Khan from Congress and Aijaz Khan, a former Congress leader is now with the Apni Party.
Choudhary is pitted against Congress leader and former Rajya Sabha MP T S Bajwa in Jammu’s Suchetgarh. “My party may have had something in mind while fielding me in the DDC polls since I had been an MLA and a Cabinet Minister. In the Council, my role will be to raise local issues like bijli, sadak, pani (power, roads, water),” says Choudhary.
Bajwa says his party fielded him since “a heavyweight was needed to fight against the BJP candidate, who is also a heavyweight”.
Says Shabir Khan, another former state minister and Congress candidate from Manjakote: “There is no protocol here… you may be a senior leader but if you don’t contest, workers at the ground level get demoralised. In whatever capacity, you are working for the welfare of people and development of the area.”
In Uri, Mohiudin points to several projects that are languishing without a “political push”. “There are bridges worth crores that are awaiting a small approach road worth Rs 2-3 lakh. Filtration plants and so many other infrastructure projects are on hold. The bureaucracy here is totally defunct,” he says.
Mohiudin served as a Cabinet Minister twice — first in the PDP-Congress coalition government in 2002 and then in the NC-Congress coalition in 2008. “I was not elected again in 2014 and since then every project I had initiated has remained stalled,” he says.
Another former state minister, Aijaz Khan, switched from Congress to Apni Party and is a candidate in Thuru constituency of Jammu’s Reasi. “My participation will bridge the trust deficit between people and the government,” says Khan. BJP’s Shakti Parihar, also a former state minister, is contesting from Marmat and Gundna in Jammu’s Doda district.
The prominent ex-MLAs from Jammu in the fray include Bharati Bhushan and Prof Gharu Ram. They were among the six legislators who were expelled by the BJP in 2011 for defying the party whip during voting for the Legislative Council elections.
Another former MLA, Charanjit Singh, is contesting from Kathua block. A former bureaucrat, Singh is the father-in-law of EkkJutt Jammu chairman Ankur Sharma, the advocate who raised the issue of minority status to Hindus of J&K in the Supreme Court and challenged the Roshni Act, seeking a CBI inquiry through a PIL in the J&K High Court.
Other leading former legislators from Jammu include Kanta Andora, wife of former minister and chairman of Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan Choudhary Lal Singh, Shehnaz Ganai and Choudhry Akram (Congress).
Apart from Mohiudin and Lone, the other prominent former MLA contesting in the Valley is PDP’s Ajaz Mir from Zainpora in Shopian. Mir had represented the Wachi area of the district in the J&K Assembly.