THERE IS no sign of an election on the 120-km stretch from Srinagar to Larnoo in Anantnag. Until Dandipora village comes into view, and a banner that announces the name of a candidate: Khalida Bibi. With an image of PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, and the PDP and NC flags intertwined, it also symbolises the mainstream PAGD front.
Bibi is among the 89 women candidates, and 296 overall, who are contesting in the opening phase of the first ever District Development Council polls across Jammu and Kashmir on Saturday, covering nearly 7 lakh voters and 43 constituencies.
The polls form the first test for the Centre’s move to restart the political process after the bifurcation of the state into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh last August. Spread across eight phases over this month and the next, the elections will witness voting from 7 am to 2 pm.
At Larnoo, which is among 25 constituencies in the Valley going to polls Saturday, several vehicles line the road outside the election centre, ready to dispatch polling parties to 143 booths. The seat is reserved for ST women and is being contested by Bibi from PAGD, Farhana Akhtar of Congress and three Independents — all marking their debuts.
Records show the constituency has no BJP candidate despite the party’s claims that it is contesting all 140 seats across the Valley. There is no mention either of the J&K Apni Party, which was formed this year by former PDP and NC leaders as an alternative to the mainstream.
On Friday, with hours to go for the first vote to be cast, Bibi’s house is filled with visitors. Her husband, Gulzar Ahmad Khatana, a PDP worker who was elected Sarpanch in 2008, is part of a group of men poring over voters’ lists.
Bibi highlights the lack of political representation and its impact over the last year-and-a-half. “The underprivileged people of this area do not have the money to spend to visit the DC’s office. Where will they get the resources to visit the advisors of the Lieutenant-Governor?” she asks.
Her husband Khatana says he wants to address the political vacuum after the Centre’s decision on August 5, 2019. “There are very few subjects in the hands of panchayats. This is a bigger platform. It will give us greater opportunity to work for our areas since a constituency, which was earlier represented by one MLA, will now have 14 representatives from the grassroots,” he says.
Congress candidate Akhtar says her campaign “has largely been door-to-door”. The outreach has been limited, she says, given the “difficult security atmosphere” of south Kashmir.
“The main issues are roads, electricity, hospitals. The restoration of Article 370 is a bigger fight and that will be taken up by our senior leaders. For now, my main concern is that students are struggling without proper connectivity and it hampers their education,” says Akhtar.
Dandipora resident Ali Mohammad Mir says the DDC polls offer an opportunity. “I don’t have the means to go to the Secretariat. And with lockdown after lockdown, there is hardly any transport. This way, I have someone within my reach who can speak for me,” he says.
Across the road outside Bibi’s house, polling staff start loading ballot boxes into vehicles. For the first time, the boxes have this marking: “Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir”.
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