“Zyada roozgaar, myaari taleem, behtar sehat” (more jobs, quality education and better healthcare) – these are the three phrases you are likely to come across almost in a constant loop all over Baramulla town, once considered a separatist stronghold. Travel some 50-odd kilometers south-west to the Shahkoot, Pringal, Limber and Tathamulla areas of Uri assembly seat and the dominant theme is about granting ST status to Paharis who have not seen aniota of development in many decades. In fact, travel anywhere in and around the Baramulla region of North Kashmir and one finds most political campaigns built on the theme of “Ek nayee umeed, ek rooshan mustaqbil”.
This is the new legacy of 2014 – a year that will probably be hailed by future historians as the turning point in Indian democracy when voting for mere symbolism was replaced by a scrutiny of the tangible development record of politicians. Our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, won a historic mandate in the summer of 2014 because he was in sync with this new Indian democracy, while the rest of the political class was too busy selling their old tools of secular-socialism. Similarly in Kashmir today, while the Hurriyat and the separatists are trying in vain to re-sell their symbolism of “Azaadi”, ordinary Kashmiri voters have already moved towards the hope of a better life.
Modi and his party may not be the biggest direct beneficiaries of this new-found hope in the Kashmir valley and it is immaterial since BJP did not field candidates in 5 out of the 7 seats that went to polls today from the Baramulla region. What really matters is that Kashmiris have found a choice beyond separatism and Azaadi and are willing to tie their destinies to that of a new India led by the stalwart and indomitable Modi. Herein lies the existential dilemma of our troublesome neighbor, for the path of democracy that Kashmir is taking could lead to an irreversible embrace with India and a grand irrelevance of Pakistan in the valley. This panic is no doubt why a restless Pakistan attacked Uri just 3 days before polls. And how did Uri answer back Pakistan? By coming out to vote in overwhelming numbers!
Uri, of course, witnessed a tight three-cornered fight between Congress, NC and PDP. While Congress and NC have been traditional rivals here, PDP has made a big effort this time by fielding the multi-millionaire former cop-turned-politician, Raja Aijaz Ali Khan, a Pahari by ethnicity, as their candidate. Till latest reports were available, it appeared that the PDP, which has never won this seat in the past, may have caused a stunning upset this time around. Similarly in Patan too, PDP’s gamble of giving a ticket to Imran Ansari, the son of four-time legislator and an influential Shia leader, Iftikar Hussain Ansari, seems to have paid them rich dividends. In Baramulla town, Yale returnee, Salman Soz may pull a surprise by bucking the anti-Congress trend prevailing all over J&K – translating into one less seat for the PDP in the valley.
All of this, of course, does not mean that Kashmir has adopted democracy in totality, for there are still small pockets of resistance as witnessed today in Baramulla in constituencies such as Sopore, the Geelani and Jamaat stronghold, where the turnout was as low as 30% as per the latest reports sent in by 5 PM. Sopore has some 5000-odd migrant Pandit votes and was considered to be one of the seats that BJP would like to target in its mission 44+ in the run up to the elections, but the party surprised everyone by not nominating a candidate from here.
Today, with only 30k-odd votes being cast, the Sopore election has assumed immense significance as BJP has extended full support to Peoples Conference candidate Mohammad Ramzan Baba. Interestingly, independent candidate, Irshad Rasool Kar, the son of former Congressman Ghulam Rasool Kar who had pockets of influence in Sopore, was also seen to be working to help BJP and PC in today’s polls. With the sitting MLA, Mohammad Ashraf Ganie, facing solid anti-incumbency and with Congress and PDP dividing the traditional Kashmiri votes, Peoples Conference has a strong chance of winning this seat. It must be remembered that National Conference had secured a total of only 4368 votes from here last time and had won the seat by a mere 1064 vote margin. By putting its weight behind Sajjad Lone’s party, BJP has possibly scored a potential masterstroke.
For another masterstroke from BJP, we travel to South Kashmir. Yesterday, the Prime Minister addressed a historic rally in the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium of Srinagar and, today, we may have witnessed history in the making. Ever since electioneering commenced in Jammu & Kashmir, our own internal assessment at 5Forty3 Data Labs has been that BJP may end up winning zero seats in the valley despite all the bravado. Therefore, when the first round of reports started trickling in from Tral this morning, our reaction was one of disbelief.
Maybe the impossible has happened in the valley as the BJP may have opened its account in Tral. One can never be sure of electoral outcomes, but it can now be stated with reasonable amount of confidence that the saffron party has either scored an impossible victory in Tral or is at least among the top two. This is no mean achievement, mind you, even if BJP finishes second here. In the end analysis, three factors are responsible for BJP’s good showing here in Tral – 1) Lower Overall turnout, 2) BJP giving candidacy in Tral to the minority community (Sikhs), and 3) Division among traditional Kashmiri votes.
Elsewhere in Pulwama district, PDP seemed to be enjoying a clear advantage over its main rival National Conference in today’s poll. For instance, in Rajpora, eminent economist and former J&K Bank chairman, Dr. Haseeb Drabu of PDP was ahead in the race till we got the latest reports at 5 PM. Similar was the scenario in Pampore and Pulwama towns.
Omar Abdullah contesting from Beerwah seems to have made some difference to NC’s fortunes in Budgam district, as the party seems to have emerged as the number one choice among Shia voters especially after Aga Mohsin’s open declaration of support for the Abdullahs. In Beerwah, Omar faced a tough battle but is likely to emerge victorious with the support of more than 15k-strong Shia votes who voted for him almost in a one-sided fashion today. In Budgam, which saw a festival-like atmosphere today with heavy polling, Aga Rahulla’s individual strength and influence may help him scrape through against a strong fight put up by PDP. It is only in Chrar-i-Sharif that NC’s old warhorse, Abdul Rahim Rather who has ruled this town for 37 years, is facing the battle of his life. As of now, Rather’s fate has been sealed in the EVMs and it is a contest too close to call.
In summary, of the 16 seats that went to polls today, PDP will emerge with the lion’s share, but then it had won 9 of these seats even the last time around. The real battle is in small bits, as NC may not end up in total rout (as was evident in Budgam district today) and BJP’s strategy of helping out smaller outfits (chief among them being Sajjad Lone’s PC) may end up preventing PDP’s clear path to a majority on its own.
At the end of the day, Kashmiris came out to vote in large numbers despite mortal threats from separatists and thereby hangs a tale. A tale of a state in constant conflict finally hoping and dreaming of a better tomorrow. The Prime Minister’s rally in its simplicity highlighted that message of hope yesterday in Srinagar. Today, by coming out in record numbers, Kashmiris have reciprocated back to India.
Tonight, we end this analysis of Jammu & Kashmir phase 3 polls with a quote from an 11-year-old boy, Furkaan Fayaaz, who along with his two friends Murataza Farooq (12) and Hashim Mehraj (11) had visited the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium yesterday, travelling all the way from Dalgate amidst tight security. He had this to say about his sojourn to see the Indian Wazir-e-Azam, “Everybody was talking about Modi aanewale hai, the massive security, the barricades on roads made us keen to know how Modi looks. People say he is king and he will make Kashmir a big place so we want to see how king looks like”. Will the king deliver a people from decades of misery and pain? Will this 11-year-old boy get a chance to grow up in a Kashmir different from what the previous generations have seen? Hope is a strange bird that has seldom flown with wings so widely spanned out across the valley.
[With ground inputs from Baramulla, Uri and Pulwama. Story of the 11-year-old Furkaan Fayaaz derived from local Kashmiri newspapers of today]