Sunday, Dec 03, 2023

Rarefied Ground

Rarefied Ground

Amarnath, a revived pro-azadi lobby, no wonder Valley voters are not enthused

Rarefied Ground AP
The Vote, Stacked Up
  • Since the Valley accounts for 46 of 87 seats in J&K, the region virtually decides which party comes to power
  • Jammu has only 37 seats. Of these, 13 are in Muslim-dominated Poonch, Rajouri and Doda. So the region plays a secondary role.
  • The two key players in the Valley are the NC and the PDP. The Congress is the third influential player.
  • If there's a division of votes, the NC and PDP will tie up with Congress, independents to form government


T he schism between the Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley is caught in the pre-poll dynamics on either side of the Bannihal Pass which separates the two regions. In the Valley, all talk veers around boycotting the seven-phase assembly elections which kicks off on November 17. Political parties are finding it difficult to campaign. And the crowd response is poor. In contrast, the Hindu-dominated Jammu sector is more enthusiastic—the BJP, hoping to cash in on the Amarnath land controversy, seeks to better its 2002 tally of one seat.

But elections in J&K are not easy to predict and detecting trends is tricky. The outcome of the polls in the Valley holds the key to power. Reason: In an 87-member house, Jammu with 30.5 lakh voters has only 37 seats while the Valley with a 20.8 lakh voting population has 46 constituencies. The remaining four are in the Ladakh region. The BJP is keen on playing up the Jammu issue because the region has never thrown up a chief minister and is always playing "second fiddle" to Kashmir's politicians/parties angle.

This time the BJP is fielding 63 candidates—37 in Jammu and 26 in the Valley. The saffron party is unlikely to make any inroads in Kashmir but it hopes to snatch away seats from the Congress tally of 15 in Jammu. The emergence of the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti, which led the agitation for restoration of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, has further dented the Congress's prospects. Though the samiti is not contesting the elections, it is appealing to voters to support the BJP. But in the 13 seats in Jammu's Muslim-dominated districts of Doda, Poonch and Rajouri, it will be a straight contest between the NC and the PDP. So any new government will be dominated by either of these two key players from the Valley. The Congress role, on the other hand, will be defined by the number of seats it wins. In 2002 it secured 20 seats, five of them in the Valley.

However, this time around the Kashmir elections itself has become the biggest casualty of the Amarnath land transfer row since it has rejuvenated the largely written-off azadi movement. After the 2002 polls, many separatists had reconciled to the futility of boycotting polls in the presence of growing international pressure and Pakistan's 'U-turn' on Kashmir. Says National Conference president Omar Abdullah: "The communal agitation by the BJP in Jammu and the economic blockade on Kashmir damaged whatever gains had been made in the Valley. My party is challenged...we've to persuade people to vote, and then persuade them to vote for the NC."

Omar's anger is justified. So far his party has held just one small rally in its traditional stronghold, Srinagar. The protest politics of the Hurriyat-sponsored coordination committee, a product of the movement against land transfer, has cast a shadow on electioneering. Take, for example, the northern Bandipora district which will go to polls in the first phase on November 17. There's little sign of electioneering. On November 9, hundreds of people took out a procession in the Bandipora town and burnt flags and banners of various political parties and called for a poll boycott.

Across the Valley, there have been at least two dozen attacks on election rallies since October 20. On November 3, Omar was welcomed with stones and a shutdown in Ganderbal constituency when he went to file his nomination. Next day, PDP leader Qazi Afzal, who defeated Omar in '02, was shooed out of town, though he publicly apologised for signing the land transfer order as forest minister in the PDP-Congress government. Likewise, in south Kashmir, the home turf of the PDP, candidates have had to face up to public wrath. Mercifully, the militants are largely inactive, unlike in the 1996 and 2002 elections.

A recent protest in downtown Srinagar

Though poll boycott cries rend the air and a low voter turnout is likely, many believe the NC has a "definite edge", given the PDP's tacit approval to the transfer of 100 acres forest land to the Amarnath board. In fact, the NC hopes to improve its tally from 28 seats in the last polls. "Even if we fail to win a majority (44 seats), we'll still form a government with Congress support. After all, we extended support during the trust vote in Parliament," says a senior NC leader.

In its bid to give legitimacy to the polls, the government has planned them in seven phases. It has also mixed the low-turnout constituencies of Kashmir with Jammu and Ladakh divisions. "It has been obviously done to ensure that the combined turnout in each phase is respectable," a senior official in J&K's information department told Outlook. He admitted that the turnout in Srinagar, which is scheduled to go for polls on the last phase on December 24, would be a huge embarrassment for the government as the separatists have called for a 'Lal Chowk Chalo' on that day.

In fact, even though there has been a crackdown on the separatists—Yasin Malik, Shabir Shah, Nayeem Khan and Asiya Andrabi have all been arrested— the boycott's appeal seems to be gaining ground. Says Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq: "The government of India claims to uphold democratic values, but it arrests us, prevents us from launching a peaceful anti-poll campaign. We'll not be cowed down by the crackdown, we'll campaign against an election being held with 7,00,000 soldiers."

Such boycott calls are not new in the Valley. Neither are allegations of state rigging. Poll credibility rests on how democratic the process is. In Kashmir, the separatists will see a low turnout as victory for the pro-azadi lobby.