As her motorcade drives into Brimer, around 80 km south of Srinagar, the slogans get louder. She waves at the rows of workers who have waited hours to see her amid the incessant rains. Former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti calls it a “homecoming” and the locals welcome her with applause and cups of nun-chai.
And in this remote village, deep in south Kashmir, the heart of militancy in J&K, she takes the microphone and addresses the crowds that rarely sees VIP visits, election season or not.
“We had worked to bring peace to you. We wanted to talk to Pakistan and Hurriyat. Unfortunately, now there are restrictions on the highway and a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami. If there are encounters, bodies of militants are burnt along with the house,” she said Wednesday targeting her former ally, the BJP, and its government at the Centre.
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Mufti, who has represented the Anantnag constituency twice, in 2004 and 2014, is back again to try and win the seat she resigned from to take over the reins of the state as Chief Minister, following the death of her father in December 2015.
Her poll pitch ranges from the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A to the Centre’s hardline Kashmir approach and from explaining why she allied with the BJP to form government in the state to the fight against militancy.
“Kashmir is being discussed everywhere, negatively. They are selling the narrative of a muscular policy everywhere in the country. Banning Jamaat and JKLF, attacking Pakistan, abrogation of Article 370. At this point of time, I may be needed in the Parliament to take the fight to them,” she said, explaining her decision to contest the seat again.
She also said that while in power, she was told that “militants funerals draw huge crowds and therefore we should not give their bodies back. I refused and I continue to raise my voice against it”. In the heart of South Kashmir, that has been the foreground of the militant resurgence in recent years, Mufti had touched a nerve.
Next, she sets off for the Anantnag town to address a party convention. On the way, she points to the road ahead and speaks about how her father had it constructed. “It’s like coming home. People identify with me and I identify with them.”
However, she understands that since the coalition with the BJP, that relationship has changed and finds herself being answerable for that. “People are not able to comprehend why my father did what he did. What was his vision, why he chose BJP? He wanted to be much more than Chief Minister and for that he thought since BJP is ruling at the Centre, he thought they will be able to take forward Vajpayee’s political process via-a-vis Pakistan and separatists,” she said, adding “in a few years from now, people will understand why he did what he did.”
Pradesh Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir is also contesting the seat and is considered her strongest opponent. The NC has fielded former J&K High Court judge, Hasnain Masoodi while BJP’s Sofi Yousuf is also in the fray.
At Anantnag, addressing party workers, she says, “I did not need to contest this election, but you are aware of the situation, and in this situation, I feel like I need to be in Parliament and I need to speak for you.”
A worker raises his hand and his voice and asks what their answer should be to the “BJP question” from voters. “You have to show strength because only PDP can fight your fight. I’m not in favour of your boys being picked up. Or your houses being burnt down. I have dealt with very difficult circumstances and I have returned here.”
Locals who attend these meetings also raise concerns, “We know that they allied with the BJP. The fallout of that alliance has been that we have lost our peace. But then PDP fought back for us and that’s why their government did not last its term,” said Zaheer Ahmad Khan, a farm worker. Women who attend her rally, say that they feel encouraged by a female politician. “We take hope from her. There have been mistakes in the past, but people repose some faith in her,” said Josie Ashraf, a homemaker.
The PDP chief also acknowledges the atmosphere of fear surrounding these elections, “In the past, I could go to say even 25 villages a day, now we’re doing smaller meetings and not more than two or three a day.”
“I refused to crack down on the Jamaat, who they thought was responsible for the agitation (following Burhan Wani’s death) in 2016. They wanted to crack down on them, which I refused. Secondly, Kathua, they (BJP) had to lose two ministers and cut a sorry figure. Though they were already uncomfortable because I spoke about the need for dialogue with Pakistan publicly and my agenda,” she says as she speaks about the various breaking points that came before the BJP’s withdrawal. The final nail, she says, was her order to register an FIR against an army officer in Shopian.
She smiles as someone points to the increased used to social media in recent months, as she drives to Pahalgam where she addressed two meetings before retiring for the evening. Accepting garlands from those who attend her public meetings, “baaji” as they call her, she says, “this is what I’m made of.”