EC Decision Splits Political View In J&K

19 October 2008
The Times of India

Srinagar: The Election Commission's announcement of polls in Jammu and Kashmir has neatly cleaved political opinion in the state along ' unionist vs separatist' lines with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's PDP being the sole exception. The announcement of seven-phase voting, from November 17 to December 24, in the troubled state ended the uncertainty triggered by separatist agitation in the wake of Amarnath shrine board controversy and by EC's decision this week to not club it with MP, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Mizoram among the poll-bound states. As the EC made it known that polls would be held in time to meet the January 9 deadline for the constitution of new assembly, the Centre heaved a sigh of relief with major regional outfit National Conference (NC) and a bit player like Panthers Party siding with national players like BJP and Congress to welcome the move. The decision to go ahead with elections, despite the state being in the grip of agitation and the separatists' having gained the upper hand post-Amarnath controversy, is guided by the calculation that a delay would return the days when polls were an impossible exercise. PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti refused to comment, having earlier stated the time was not conducive for polls, even as separatists made a unanimous call for boycott with octogenarian Syed Ali Shah Geelani holding out a dire prognosis that it would be a no-show and Hurriyat Conference chief Mirwaiz Umer Farooq saying it would be a 'futile exercise'. 'Hurriyat has nothing to do with this meaningless exercise and would ask the people to stay away from it as well,' the Mirwaiz said. Now that elections are a fait accompli, PDP's predicament is understandable, which reflected in a gag order on its leaders from speaking on polls. While it has been playing to the 'sentiment of alienation', having even brought down the Ghulam Nabi Azad government - of which it was an ally - over the Amarnath controversy, it may be difficult for it to opt out of polls and leave the field open to arch-rival National Conference. In contrast, NC president Omar Abdullah welcomed the move, but chose to retain some scepticism by saying, 'I am happy that uncertainty over the polls is finally over. But the question remains whether voter turnout will be satisfactory or dismal in view of the recent polarisation over Amarnath land row.' The Union home ministry and security agencies have been of the belief that a delay in holding polls in the present circumstances would be held up by the separatists as a trophy in its war of nerves with Delhi, entrenching their position with people. However, timely polls would categorically convey that Centre was not willing to indulge the separatists, who anyway stand on a weak support structure with the marginalisation of insurgency and the indications of a possible change of heart across the border. What has held out optimism is that Islamabad has begun to hold talks on trans-border trade through Muzaffarabad amid the turbulence in the Valley and a refusal by the separatists to hold talks. Besides, a section believes that resumption of political process would bring out 'interested sections' in campaigning and allied activities in the Valley and dent the picture that separatism was the dominant sentiment. That Jammu and Ladakh regions would see hectic political activity would further help projection of normalcy. Undeterred, the separatist camp is unanimous in its opposition. Tehreek-e-Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is recuperating in Delhi after a surgery, told TOI, 'I can tell you the decision is not acceptable to the majority of the state and none would participate in it.' 'The boycott will not only be observed in Kashmir but also in Poonch, Rajouri and other far-flung areas of Jammu and Kargil. The huge outpouring of people in recent agitations shows that peaceful protests would continue.' Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik said that his party would boycott the elections and also demanded state officials to allow peaceful agitations. He also said that JKLF stood for peoples' democratic rights and anybody not in favour of polls should be allowed to go for a peaceful protest.