Race For CM's Seat Heats Up In J&K As Congress Fields Renegade NC Leader

31 October 2014
Mail Online India
Naseer Ganai

Srinagar: All eyes will be on Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's home seat Ganderbal this election season, as the friction between two estranged allies plays out amid a transformed political scenario in Jammu and Kashmir. Though Omar's National Conference (NC) is yet to announce the candidate for the central Kashmir constituency, the 44-year-old Abdullah scion's nomination from the family bastion is said to be a foregone conclusion. The NC's former coalition partner the Congress has chosen a renegade NC leader, Muhammad Yusuf Bhat, as its nominee from the constituency, in a move apparently aimed at splitting the party's vote-share. Keeping counsel: The NC has yet to confirm Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's candidacy for Ganderbal though many believe the CM's running is a foregone conclusion Bhat, who joined the Congress only a few days ago, is among the witnesses in the case pertaining to the death of NC worker Haji Yousuf in 2011. Though a judicial probe subsequently ruled the death natural, the incident became a major political hot rod because Yousuf, accused of fraud, died in police custody a day after Omar turned him in following a meeting at his house where Bhat was present. The Opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) put the onus of Yousuf's death on Omar. Earlier this year, Bhat was quoted by local media as saying that he 'maintained silence' on the circumstances of Yousuf's 'murder' to 'protect Omar and his chair', but the Congress candidate has since dismissed the remarks as incorrect. His nomination might provide a fresh challenge to the NC as it tries to script a resurgence following its rout at the hands of the PDP and the state's new big player, the BJP, in this year's Lok Sabha elections. The NC and its then ally Congress failed to win even one of the state's six seats, while the BJP and the PDP won three each. But the NC says Bhat is the least of its worries. 'Yousuf Bhat has no stature,' NC spokesperson Junaid Azim Mattu said, 'We are not bothered.' The NC, led by Omar, is going all out with its 'Mission Bounce Back', with the Chief Minister pivoting the strategy on direct interaction with citizens at an unprecedented level. The first term Chief Minister released his gmail ID to the public and invited people to visit him at his office and residence in Srinagar with feedback, grievances and suggestions. This one-on-one interaction with people led to Omar introducing several new measures and revoking other unpopular ones. Among the biggest initiatives was the withdrawal of a four-year-old ban on sending texts from pre-paid mobile connections. Riding high on the poll sops, the party has named 61 of its candidates for the state's 87 Assembly seats. A final word on Omar's seat is awaited, but the NC says there is no reason to read between the lines. 'No party has so far announced all their candidates. We would have announced the candidature of the CM, but the floods delayed it,' party spokesman Junaid Azim Mattu said, adding that an announcement in this regard will be made soon. Asked about the party's poor showing in the general elections, Mattu said Assembly polls are a different ball-game altogether. The PDP, meanwhile, says the NC is holding off the announcement as it is panicky about its prospects. 'The NC has failed to find a safe seat for Omar Abdullah. That tells lot about the party,' PDP spokesman Naeem Akhtar said. Elections for the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, elected for six years, will be held in five phases between November 25 and December 20. Having swept Kashmir in this year's general elections, the PDP has its sights set on getting a decisive mandate in the upcoming Assembly elections. Among the candidates fielded by party is noted economist and former Jammu and Kashmir Bank chairman Haseeb Drabu, who is also helping the PDP formulate its economic policies. Drabu has been a relentless critic of CM Omar Abdullah's fiscal vision. He has been fielded from Rajpora in south Kashmir's Pulwama. His association with the PDP goes a long way back to the time Drabu served as economic advisor to party patron Mufti Muhammad Sayeed during the PDP-Congress government's rule between 2002 and 2005. The party also enjoys the backing of prominent intellectual Amitabh Mattoo, the former vice-chancellor of Jammu University, who recently predicted that the PDP will win 37 seats in the Assembly elections. Mattoo, however, has not joined the PDP formally. Sure of repeating its performance in Kashmir, which accounts for 46 of the state's 87 Assembly seats, the PDP is also pursuing an equally aggressive campaign in Jammu, which sends 37 MLAs to the Jammu & Kashmir Lower House. To this end, the party has deputed senior leaders in Rajouri, Poonch and Doda-Kishtwar regions of Jammu. Kick-starting its election campaign in Rajouri and Poonch, PDP leaders harked back to the 'several initiatives' taken by the party during its rule from 2002 to mid-2005. 'In the Lok Sabha elections, we got a large number of votes from Jammu. We have fielded strong candidates from here this time and are expecting good results,' party spokesman Naeem Akhtar said.