AFTER MORE than a decade, voters in J&K will elect their representatives to the state’s 79 municipal bodies in polls starting Monday. But with barely a day to go, a resounding silence envelops most of the constituencies in the Valley. Security personnel guard the roads and buildings, and there are no banners in the markets or posters on the walls. Not many voters know who their candidates are or where the nearest polling booth is.
In the first of the four-phase elections, eight districts of the Kashmir division, including Leh and Kargil, will vote Monday to elect representatives to 15 municipal councils and committees, including three wards of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation.
After the National Conference and the PDP announced their decision not to participate in the municipal polls, the contest is largely between the Congress, the BJP and a large number of independent candidates.
Of the 598 seats in the Valley, at least 236 will be uncontested. Another 184 have received no nominations. In all, 1,204 candidates are in the fray for the 321 wards going to polls in the first phase.
In North Kashmir’s Baramulla, a family is making last-minute appeals to voters as three of its members contest for the town’s municipal council. Tauseef Raina, a 27-year-old contesting the Sangri seat, says the campaign has largely been under the radar. His mother, Fareeda Begum and brother Shahid-ul-Islam, are also candidates in an election marked by boycott and palpable fear across the Valley.
“There will always be fear and scepticism, but someone needs to take charge and fight it. Leaders who will resolve this conflict, have to come from the ground,” Raina says. “When I was approached by local residents to contest the polls, I wanted to bring in more candidates but people who I could protect. That’s when I asked my mother and brother, because we live together, we could be safe together.”
Development is his key message to his electorate and one, he says, they are willing to vote for. “No one tells me that they will not vote. There are still places in the district that are not connected by road. When I tell them we will work to bring them roads, they say they will vote,” he says.
A social activist from the area, Raina says he is not promising jobs, but just the basic amenities. “And that’s enough,” he says.
His mother is campaigning on women’s issues and hopes to address them, if she is elected. “Women’s participation is important in a democratic set-up. I would like to bring women’s issues forth. Domestic violence is a big concern for us,” she says.
Outside, meanwhile, security forces check vehicles and ID papers. The state government has announced a holiday in poll-bound districts to facilitate voting and the state’s separatist leadership has called for a shutdown.
In the three Srinagar wards going to polls in the first phase, there is little to suggest that an election is set to take place. Residents in Bemina, on the outskirts of the city, claim that they have not seen anyone campaigning and that, if they vote, they “do not know who to vote for”.
Struggling to name a single candidate, Mohammad Shafi sits in his grocery store, oblivious to talk of empowerment. “I do not know any candidates. If there are any, they have not shown themselves,” he says.
In Humhama, another part of Srinagar that votes on Monday, Nazir Ahmad echoes the same sentiment, shaking his head with uncertainty. “Take a look around, it does not seem like there is an election. I live and work here, I have not seen anyone campaign and I do not know the candidates,” he says. Ahmad acknowledges, however, that the boycott by political parties and the “threat of violence” shrouds the elections.
Mohammad Farooq Khan, a former militant and a BJP candidate in Srinagar, sees the urban local body polls as a way of emerging from what he terms “a very hard life” for over 29 years. Khan joined the militancy at its peak in the early 1990s after which he was arrested and subsequently released.
He joined the BJP an hour before filing his nomination from the Tankipora constituency and states that there was no “len-den (give and take)” in the matter. “They approached me and said they will give me the mandate and I accepted their offer,” he says.
Rehabilitation of former militants is at the top of his agenda. “I have seen the worst of it. I could not get a room on rent, I could not get a job. If someone gave me even a menial job, they would ask me to leave once they knew my history,” he says.
Khan runs the J&K Human Welfare Association, a body of ex-militants in the state, and he hopes to bring dignity into their lives, if elected.
Gulshan Bilal, a Congress candidate from Dalgate, in central Srinagar, claims that she has not been able to step out to campaign at all, given the threat looming over the elections, amplified by the killing of two National Conference workers in the old city on Saturday.
“I only wish to be able to resolve people’s day-to-day issues. Bigger leaders can deal with the bigger problems but I wanted to bring attention to the smaller issues that people battle here. However, I have not been able to step out and meet people. My hope is that people will vote and give us the mandate to work for them,” she says.