There is complete secrecy about elections in Anantnag constituency of South Kashmir. No flags, banners or festoons can be seen in the market and villages. Political workers speak about the necessity of a local representative in the Parliament and of the elected government in the state, but they are reluctant to divulge even their names.
The oasis of mainstream pro-India politics in south Kashmir is high-security government housing colony Khanabal, adjacent to the Senior Superintendent’s office in Anantnag. Almost all top politicians of Anantnag and Kulgam constituency have official residence here. The colony also houses offices of National Conference (NC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Congress, BJP and other smaller parties.
On March 31, the party office of PDP in the housing colony was shut. The BJP parliamentary candidate from the constituency Sofi Yousuf was in the party office along with a few dozen workers. At the NC’s office, only a few workers were present.
The PDP candidate from the constituency is former Chief Minister and former MP from the area Mehbooba Mufti. Congress party has fielded state Congress Chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir from the region and NC candidate is former High Court judge, Justice Hasnian Masoodi.
Anantnag parliamentary constituency, having 13,86,840 voters and 1812 polling stations, has remained vacant for the longest period in the electoral history of the country. After taking over as Chief Minister in 2016, Mehbooba resigned as MP and since then the Anantnag seat fell vacant. Due to volatile security situation in south Kashmir, the Election Commission postponed Anantnag by-polls twice in 2017. In 2018, it postponed the by-poll after ground assessment concluded that the situation was not conducive for elections. Even these days when leaders like Mehbooba are in the fray, no political party has conducted a rally in the constituency spreading over four districts -- Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama, which are hotbed of new age militancy in the Kashmir Valley.
Across the PDP office in the Housing Colony is the residence of party leader Rafi Ahmad Mir, where over a dozen party workers were sitting in a room on a Sunday. One of the workers was 30-year-old Muzaffer Ahmad, a Commerce graduate, who runs private transport business. Hailing from Bijbehara area of south Kashmir, Ahmad says, he would be voting for the PDP as only they can ensure peace and development in the region. He says, this time it is difficult for PDP workers to motivate people for voting as the party had aligned with the BJP and it was in power in 2016 when large scale civilian killings took place. “In 2014, we were proudly going out in public seeking votes for the party. This time we have to motivate even our own party workers to vote. Things are difficult,” he adds.
Another party worker, Abdul Rashid, intervenes and says he was not sure whether he will cast his vote in upcoming elections. He says there is fear involved and south Kashmir witnesses funerals almost every day making voting immaterial. He, however, says people should give the PDP one more chance as the elected government will change their fortunes. “It is the party that has a blueprint for Kashmir resolution and it should be given another chance,” he adds.
All PDP workers refused to be photographed saying such pictures go viral in the south Kashmir region and make them vulnerable to attacks.
Another PDP leader Iftikhar Misger, 50, says political activities would pick up in south Kashmir after nomination papers are filed by April 4. He argues there is no alternative to the PDP. “The PDP is for the self-respect and dignity of people of Kashmir and even though it was ally of the BJP, our party let the government go instead of compromising on the core issues of the party,” he says. “You will see different atmosphere in coming days, at least in Anantnag Assembly segment.”
At the next-door National Conference office, 28-year-old Bilal Ahmad Bhat, says he is with the NC for the past 15 years. While sitting at a chair in the lawns of the office, he argues, there is no replacement of the NC.
“Kashmiris tested other parties including the PDP but what happened,” he asks, adding “the PDP joined hands with the BJP and brought misery all around.” He says he has his small business and has remained with National Conference when the PDP star was at its zenith in South Kashmir. “Mufti Mohammad Sayeed would ask for 40 seats to change fortunes of Kashmir and when he got a mandate, he joined BJP and brought pellet guns to Kashmir,” Bilal says. He says Kashmiris would this time go back to the National Conference, which, “according to him” has guarded special status of Jammu and Kashmir for the past 70 years.