Kashmir Votes, For A Change

19 December 2014
Hindu Business Line
Tawqeer Hussain

Srinagar: The Valley has seen an unprecedented voter turnout in the Assembly polls. But should Delhi see it as a victory of the democracy? Outside his office hours, Maroof Ahmad, a 28-year-old volunteer for Jammu and Kashmir's oldest political party, National Conference, spent all his time meeting youngsters, explaining to them the importance of voting and asking them to support his party's candidate in the fourth phase of the state's Assembly elections. Ahmad sees this as a 'do-or-die' election, as he is fed up with the present MLA of his Doru Shahabad constituency in South Kashmir and wants a better alternative. 'The Congress MLA has been representing us for the last 12 years, and in the name of development, we have a few roads and a college,' he says. Asked if he has voted before, he replies in the negative, adding, 'maybe because I didn't vote, we got an unacceptable leader, so this time I voted for change.' Like him, hundreds of young Kashmiri men and women who had hitherto abstained from voting have turned into active supporters of various political parties. 'Either we vote or we do not. Someone has to be elected, so it is better to vote and elect a leader of our choice,' reasons 22-year-old Tanveer Ahmad Mir. Ruheel Fayaz, 26, another first-time voter, sees unemployment as the foremost challenge for Kashmiri youth. 'I am a postgraduate and I am still unemployed, so I cast my vote for the candidate who promised us greater employment opportunities,' he says. Recording a larger turnout this time, the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which end today, have witnessed a new trend of youngsters participating enthusiastically in the entire electoral process. According to Election Commission data, nearly 1,48,480 electors in the state are in the 18-19 age group, and 19,82,701 in the 20-29 bracket. Ajaz Ahmad is also anxious for change, accusing the present coalition government of failing to rehabilitate the flood-hit people in his hometown Kanipora in South Kashmir's Kulgam district. 'Both the National Conference and Congress promised much during the floods but did nothing on the ground, so we are voting for a new government that will hopefully rehabilitate us,' he says. The devastating September floods exposed the state's unpreparedness for a calamity of this magnitude and led to a growing clamour for a change of guard. Significantly, many Kashmiris have also said that they are participating in the polls to keep out the BJP and its promise of ending the state's special autonomous status under Article 370. Although the BJP did try to backtrack after many of its own candidates protested against any such move, the damage had already been done. 'They try to take our land from us without solving the Kashmir issue. We won't let it happen. So I voted to keep the BJP out of the state,' says Shakir Nabi of Channapora area in uptown Srinagar. The separatist Hurriyat Conference had expectedly called for a boycott of the polls, but the people defied it this time and voted in large numbers. 'What has Hurriyat given us? We supported them every time and everywhere during 2008 or 2009. They don't have a roadmap for Kashmir,' says a visibly angry Showkat Rashid of Rajbagh area in Srinagar. 'These Hurriyat people fight for their own power and claim to be fighting for us. They just offer us hartals, shutdowns and protests.' Many Kashmiris speaking to this correspondent were quick to clarify that while Delhi might see their participation in the polls as a willingness to be a part of India, all they were voting for were 'bijli, sadak and paani' (basic needs). 'Delhi is using our vote to show world bodies that Kashmiris are living happily with India and have full faith in the Indian Constitution, but the whole world knows that we vote only for basic amenities,' says Sajid Ahmad, standing in the line outside a polling station in Anantnag. The regional parties in the fray, such as the National Conference and People's Democratic Party, have been quick to delink the election process from the greater Kashmir issue. 'Kashmir elections are independent of the greater aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. We have promised in our manifesto that PDP will use democratic ways to solve the Kashmir issue,' said its chief spokesperson, Naeem Akhtar. Political analysts say that the large voter turnout proves that Kashmiris were always ready to vote, but stayed away as they were unsure it would make a difference to their lives. 'There has been a constant tussle among the people to vote or not, as they didn't take it seriously earlier. Now, the present generation of youth are analysing the issues and voting,' says Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a senior political analyst working in the Valley. But Fayaz Ahmad is not one of them. 'Why should I vote? Neither have I seen development nor employment, so what is the point of choosing another representative,' he insists. (Tawqeer Hussain is a New Delhi-based journalist currently covering the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir)