Key Challenges: Harsh Winter, Boycott Calls

9 November 2014
The Tribune (Chandigarh)
Azhar Qadri

Srinagar: At the snowy end of 2014, when the fate of mainstream political parties and leaders will be decided in a five-phase poll process, an affair of many challenges will unfold under uncertain circumstances with unpredictable results. The key to many questions will be the number of flood-weary residents who will come out to vote. In the process, it will be a crucial test of democracy that how many will be charmed to form lengthy queues in adverse weather conditions and a dicey security situation. It will be surprising if a single party wins the majority in the Assembly. This has not happened in Jammu and Kashmir since 1996, when the National Conference (NC) won 57 of the 87 seats. There are hints that the mandate will be fractured and the next state government is likely to be another coalition of the unwilling. In Kashmir, the main contest will be between the NC, a 75-year-old party, and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a 15-year-old party. The latter had routed the former in a stunning victory in the Valley's three constituencies during the General Election. Anti-incumbency may be the main factor in many constituencies, like it was during the General Election. The rescue, relief and rehabilitation work carried out by political parties, including separatist groups, may turn out to be a decisive last-minute factor and determine winning candidates and voter turnout. Electoral fight in winter: Assembly elections in Kashmir will be held at a time when mercury is around freezing point. It will be a wintry morning and a short day when Kashmir's five constituencies will go to the polls on November 25 in the first phase of elections. The sun will rise at 7.15 am and set at 5.24 pm. The night temperature will hover around freezing point and the day temperature is expected to rise to a maximum of 15 degree Celsius if the sun shines. In the Ladakh region, where the polls will be held in all four constituencies the same day, the situation will be extreme. On the night of November 25 last year, mercury fell to minus 8.7 degree Celsius in Leh town. When polling in the state will conclude on the fifth and last phase on December 20, it will be on the eve of the year's shortest day and mark the beginning of the 40-day harshest phase of winter. Political activists in the Kashmir region, at least some of them, are already uncertain about the turnout. They say it is unlikely that the numbers and fervour of 2008 will be replicated. The total voter turnout in 2008 had reached 61.16 per cent. 'There is no air of elections in the region now,' said a worker of the state unit of the CPI(M). 'It may change in the next 10 days, but it is difficult to predict voters' mood and issues,' he said. Kashmir's oldest political party, the NC, had governed the state in coalition with the Congress for six years since January 2009. Stunned by its rout in the General Election, it was shocked when election dates were announced. The ruling alliance has faltered and leaders of the two coalition partners are fighting most of the pre-poll battle against each other. The PDP, which routed the NC from the region in the General Election for the first time earlier this year, is in a confident mood. All permutations suggest that it will return with a winner's swagger, at least in much of the Kashmir region. The vote share of the PDP increased from 9.28 per cent in 2002 to 15.39 per cent in 2008. There is no sign that the trend will reverse or change in the elections. Boycott by Jamaat-e-Islami: The Jamaat-e-Islami, an influential socio-political organisation, which has played an instrumental role in Kashmir's separatist movement and militancy in the past, has decided to go with its latest policy. It will not participate in the poll process, which will directly and indirectly impact the decision of 1 lakh people who are its members. 'Only around 3,000 members are bound by instructions not to take part in elections. Supporters are expected to follow the instructions, but are not bound to do so,' a Jamaat-e-Islami member has said. Mohammad Abdullah Wani, emir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, says his group will neither take part in elections nor campaign against it. 'If we do not participate in elections, it means that we advise people not to take part either,' he says. 'We are not against elections, but the Muslim United Front election made us distrustful,' he said. The election in 1987 was a significant event in the region as allegations of rigging against an amalgam of pro-separatist and pro-Islamic parties triggered years of militancy and forbade the polls for separatists. Even in the absence of the boycott campaign by separatists, there are little signs on the ground that an election is knocking on the door. The deluge sank the headquarters of mainstream political parties. The Nawa-e-Subah complex, housing the main office of the NC, was submerged under 12 feet of water for nearly a fortnight, which damaged electioneering material, including 12 lakh party flags. Threat from militants: There is a tangible threat from militants who have presence in south Kashmir and are scattered across central and north Kashmir. A spate of attacks on political workers and panchayat members in the run-up to the General Election had led to an abysmal turnout in many parts of south Kashmir. Security agencies are wary of the situation in south Kashmir where 20 youths joined militants in recent weeks. An officer of the state police's counter-insurgency wing says there is a threat in Tral, Awantipora, Pulwama, Shopian and nearby areas. South Kashmir is the hideout and area of operation of Qasim, a foreign militant. The officer says candidates with security cover are not under threat, but there are chances of attacks on low-rung activists. In the General Election, voter turnout in Pulwama was a meagre 6.32 per cent. Security forces are likely to intensify anti-militancy operations and area-specific exercises as elections draw near. Low voting areas: North Kashmir: Sopore, Baramulla and Pattan; Central Kashmir: Downtown Srinagar; and South Kashmir: Pulwama district, Islamabad and Shopian town