GHULAM AHMAD Para is campaigning in an election for the first time. Over the last week, he has been trudging through villages in Pulwama, knocking on doors and seeking votes — not for himself, but for his son.
The 62-year-old is the father of Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, who is the youth wing president of the PDP, candidate from Pulwama-1 for the J&K District Development Council (DDC) polls, and currently in custody of the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
“The vote this time isn’t just for a DDC seat, it is also to secure his release,” says Para’s younger brother Nadeem. The constituency votes Monday in the fourth of the eight-phase polls, and Nadeem is part of a core group of friends and family that has hit the campaign trail.
Para, 32, was arrested on November 25, five days after he filed his nomination, in connection with a terror case against suspended J&K police officer Devinder Singh. According to the NIA, Para was allegedly in touch with one of the accused. The PDP, led by former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, has denied the charges.
In Para’s constituency, meanwhile, there is no party flag or banner announcing his candidature for the mainstream front, PAGD — just posters on walls with a message from him, urging people to be witnesses to his innocence by voting for him.
This is the first time that Para is contesting, although he was part of the PDP’s campaign in south Kashmir across at least three elections through a political career marked by a swift rise after joining the party in 2013.
“Waheed is so well regarded in this area that whether or not we campaign, people will come out and support him,” says Mohammad Amin, 57, a close associate. Amin is part of a campaign team poring over voter records at Para’s house in Naira village, a day after Mehbooba Mufti visited in a show of support.
The constituency has about 14 villages and over 25,000 voters, with six candidates in the fray, including BJP’s Sajad Raina, Apni Party’s Ghulam Hassan Mir and four Independents.
Raina, 36, is among the key contestants, having been elected unopposed as sarpanch in the 2018 panchayat polls. He is also vice-chairman of the Block Development Council and says he is “fighting for vikas (development)”.
Apart from the door-to-door campaign, Para’s team charts out individual outreach, posters in English and Urdu with messages from the candidate, a social media campaign and an audio clip urging people to vote “if they wish to change their future”.
Tasked with making calls to prospective voters, Nadeem, who is a businessman, says that in his brother’s absence, “it is difficult to start each day of the campaign”.
“I make hundreds of calls. Several voters are still upset over the PDP’s alliance with the BJP (after the 2014 Assembly elections). But they are ready to vote because this time, their vote is an expression of anger against the Constitutional changes made in J&K and how it affects all of us,” says the 29-year-old, referring to the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of the state.
According to Para’s team, it is also countering “misinformation from the BJP” that since he has been arrested, the candidature stands cancelled. “The effort is to dispel this untruth on the ground and inform everyone that he is in custody but still the most viable candidate,” says Mohit Bhan, another associate.
“Now that he has been arrested, that does set a person back, but he has been a guiding light for so long and for so many, that we are all hopeful of his win,” says Bhan.
In Naira’s main market area, several voters say Para would have been their go-to person if one of their own got arrested by police. “He has been helpful in every respect and even if no one tells me to cast my vote, I will,” says Mohammad Maqbool, a shopkeeper.
Says another local resident, Bilal Ahmad: “Everyone may not understand the new DDC system that is being put in place. But for us, there is only one concern in this election, that is to show that we will stand by this candidate.”