- Turnout in the first phase of voting in Anantnag LS seat was 12 per cent. It was 39 per cent in 2014.
- Mehbooba Mufti won the seat in 2014, but the meagre turnout in PDP bastions might dent her prospects.
It is the only constituency in the country that is going to polls in three phases. And yet, Anantnag, which comprises south Kashmir’s four districts, shows no signs that elections are on. In the first phase, on April 23, a few people cast votes at the two polling booths, serving 916 and 753 voters respectively, in Bumdoora village. But others thought it was a pointless exercise. “So many people have been killed in the past three years. Hundreds have been wounded. My father was booked under the Public Safety Act. Why should we vote and for whom?” asks one of the youngsters outside the polling station at Government Middle School, Bumdoora.
Some of the village elders say that the Congress candidate, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, has done developmental work in the region and they would vote for him. But voters on the ground were few—militants had called for a poll boycott and the first phase in Anantnag recorded a dismal 12.86 per cent turnout.
The second phase will be held in Kulgam on April 29 and the third phase in Shopian and Pulwama on May 6. Authorities say the level of violence in the region since 2016 has made it necessary to conduct the polls in three phases. “There is no constituency in the country where 50 security forces personnel and 58 militants were killed in the past four months. Last year alone, 168 militants were killed here,” says a senior police official.
Indeed, Anantnag has had a violent past. Three years ago, it was at Bumdoora that security forces shot 22-year-old Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander. His killing led to mass protests for six months across the Kashmir valley. Nearly 90 civilian protesters died and over 23,000 people were injured due to bullet and pellet firing. After Wani’s death, scores of young men joined militant outfits in the four districts of the region. At present, army sources claim, there are 200 militants active in south Kashmir.
In the low-key election campaign, Anantnag’s PDP candidate, Mehbooba Mufti, shed tears to motivate her supporters to go out and vote. “Had Mufti Mohammad Sayeed been alive today, the forces wouldn’t have been burning militant bodies in encounters. Do you remember that it was the PDP which got rid of the bayonets from your back?” she thunders in her speeches. Her pro-separatist rhetoric has many takers. PDP voters in Pahalgam say that only Mehbooba will safeguard the interests of Kashmiris.
On the other side of the political divide, former chief minister Omar Abdullah is hopeful that the people of south Kashmir will reject Mehbooba. “The tears we see in her eyes are not out of remorse. On the contrary, these are political tears, which she is craftily shedding to gain lost ground,” he says. The National Con-ference has fielded Hasnain Masoodi, a former high court judge from the region, against Mehbooba. The party claims that only it can safeguard the provisions for Kashmir under Articles 35A and 370 of the Constitution.
The BJP candidate from the constituency, Sofi Mohammad Yousuf, started his campaign after praying at a Sufi shrine. The saffron outfit has turned its banners green in Kashmir to avoid a backlash during the polls. There is another interesting twist to the competition. Delhi-based Khwaja Shamas has created history by becoming the first candidate from outside J&K to contest elections in the state.
The most worrying news for Mehbooba, however, is the turnout in her hometown, Brijbehara, and the Anantnag assembly segment—roughly 2 and 4 per cent respectively. Both are strongholds of the PDP. As many as 40 booths in the former registered zero votes. If Mehbooba loses from the constituency, it would be a huge blow to her party, which has been facing existential crises since last year, when many senior leaders quit.
By Naseer Ganai in Anantnag