June 2016 News

Islamabad Test For Mehbooba In Anantnag

19 June 2016
The Telegraph (Kolkata)
Sankarshan Thakur

Anantnag: Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is seeking election from a town that no longer exists. The dateline to this story is a phantom dateline whose imprint has been banished to official maps, government stationery and road signage. There used to be, once upon a time, a town called Anantnag. It was blown away in recurrent rejectionist anti-India waves and in its place was instituted a location eponymous with the Pakistani capital: Islamabad. In the consciousness of the Valley's citizenry, in quotidian conversation, in the customer call of cabbies and bus conductors, even in local newspapers, there exists no such place as Anantnag, the seat the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister aspires to represent in the state Assembly. Anantnag has long expired, its burial grounds now the headquarters of south Kashmir's hard-nut militant clusters - Shopian, Tral, Kulgam, Pampore, Pulwama, Kakpora, Panzgam. Between calling this dust-blown retail crossroads Anantnag or Islamabad is how you get defined in these parts. Anantnag is the nomenclature of outsiders and collaborators; should you seek to be part of the milieu, Islamabad is the name to use. Such is the political constituency Mehbooba Mufti nurtured for more than a decade as PDP arrowhead, such is the place she is now fighting to represent in the legislature as chief minister - a chief executive sworn to the Indian Constitution and married in coalition to an ultra-nationalist party as political legatee of an unabashedly secessionist hotbed that wears the boycott call as a badge of honour. Anantnag, nee Islamabad, hasn't required a diktat from militants to forsake polling stations on Election Day, it is intrinsically averse to any process 'Indian'. That separatists - political and militant - have issued recurrent calls for shunning Wednesday's vote could well be the biggest challenge Mehbooba faces in her pocket borough - to woo enough electors out to give the mandate respectable numbers. Ruling parties seldom lose key by-elections, chief ministers probably never. But the cynicism on the Anantnag street must worry Mehbooba - 'What does it matter to us that there is an election, elections come and go, our fight isn't getting solved, neither the issues of our livelihood,' is the recurrently echoing sense. 'Yes, there is a chief minister in the fray, so most likely she will make it, but does that make a difference? No.' For an election that should qualify as high voltage, the atmospherics are remarkably low-powered. None of the big poster-banner bouts that usually attend such contests, none of the deafening decibel of bandwagoneers, barely even the rivalry of buntings that announce to you a war is in the works. Campaigning has been scant and scattered. Mehbooba came twice, her predecessor and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah once, the Congress never put a heavy foot on the ground. How many people in a reluctant constituency of 84,000-odd can you bother convincing they should go out to vote? Former chief minister and probably the best known Kashmiri Congressman, Ghulam Nabi Azad, came to Srinagar but never stirred in the direction of Anantnag, barely 50 kilometres south, to the aid of his party. They sent Raj Babbar, who probably cuts as much ice in these parts as ice cuts glass. Could it have helped the Opposition to Mehbooba if the Congress and the National Conference had put up a joint fight? Perhaps. But that hasn't happened. The Congress and the National Conference both allege Mehbooba is running an 'RSS front disguised as government' but they are singing that common song from separate platforms. What could have been an orchestra is mere cacophony on the trail, no more. Hilal Ahmed Shah of the Congress might have fancied his chances with a little help from his party; he ran the late Mufti Mohammed Sayeed close in the 2014 Assembly election, losing by a mere 6,000 votes. He's pressing hard again but probably to vain purposes. He needed his party to carry him through, they sent him out on a limb and made no more than the services of a broken crutch. It must please Mehbooba to see her opposition divided and lacking. But it must worry her to see her constituents so cynical. But she'll probably console herself saying it's really Islamabad she's seeking to represent and not Anantnag. There's so much anybody can do to enthuse Islamabad about someone who's resolved to swear by the Constitution of India.