Anantnag poised for history’s lowest turnout Assembly election
Lukewarm Congress may send Raj Babbar, Azharuddin for campaigning; Mehbooba planning first rally today
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
ANANTNAG, June 17: With just three days of campaigning left in Anantnag, where Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is contesting the by-election to become a member of Legislative Assembly, National Conference acting President Omar Abdullah broke the ice on Thursday while holding his party’s first rallies in Kehribal and Krangsu. In sharp contrast to the enthusiastic election scene in 2014, n0 political party or a contesting candidate has been able to hold a 1,000-strong rally here in the last three weeks of insipid campaigning.
In addition to winning Lok Sabha elections from South Kashmir in 2004 and 2014, both times defeating NC’s Dr Mehboob Beg who is now PDP’s chief spokesperson, Mehbooba has become MLA three times in her 20-year-long political career---from Bijbehara, Pahalgam and Wachi. She is now contesting her first Assembly election from Anantnag, vacated in January this year with the death of her father and former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
Last week, Mehbooba held a whirlwind tour of 18 villages in the constituency. According to the official figures 50 to 200 people gathered at different spots on the road to listen to her. It was her first appearance for canvassing. Sources close to her revealed to STATE TIMES that Ms Mufti would hold a major rally at a local stadium on June 18th.
Not that PDP has left the field vacant. The party stalwarts---Mehbooba’s maternal uncle Sartaj Madni and Minister of R&B Abdul Rehman Veeri, whose attendance in the Assembly’s current session has been minimal---have been holding the fort. Minister of Law Abdul Haq Khan and Minister of Finance Haseeb Drabu visited twice each to boost the campaign. PDP Youth Wing president Waheed-ur-Rehman Para too has been camping here since last fortnight.
“Most of the people are busy with paddy plantation. Besides, these are the days of Ramzan when people attend their religious duties more than politics. Two militant attacks at Bijbehara and Anantnag on June 3rd and 4th have also caused some fear. That’s why we have decided to just carry on just a door-to-door campaigning. We call local representatives and men of influence and explain to them why Mehboobaji’s victory is significant not only for PDP and Islamabad but also for the whole State”, said a senior PDP leader. According to him, it was going to be a “cakewalk victory” for the Chief Minister.
Insiders though are not satisfied with the way of Mehbooba’s campaigning. They narrated how late Mufti Sayeed would maintain an amazing rapport with the workers and frequently call 62 select men to seek their opinion and keep them charged for the party activity. “Madam’s liaison with the party workers has been remarkably limited after her father’s death”, said a local PDP leader, wishing to be anonymous.
NC has entrusted the campaign to a team of leaders that includes former Minister Sakeena Itoo, Kashmir Provincial President Nasir Aslam Wani, MLC Dr Bashir Veeri, MLAs Altaf Kaloo and Abdul Majid Larmi besides a local leader Dr Rafeeq Kochak and the candidate Iftikhar Hassan Misgar. They too are running a “door-to-door campaign”. NC’s biggest propaganda against PDP is that it “ditched” the people who had given it mandate in 2014 to keep BJP-RSS combine away from power. NC’s leaders play it up that PDP had formed the Government in coalition with RSS-backed BJP and that it was “furthering the Hindutva outfits’ communal and divisive agenda”.
“People of Anantnag are politically mature. They know that voting for PDP is voting for BJP, RSS and VHP. Had PDP not become a bedfellow of BJP and RSS, it had no match in Anantnag”, journalist Maqbool Veeray said.
Both, NC as well as Congress, have started alleging that Chief Minister was using her official machinery to ensure her victory. In Assembly, Congress leader Nawang Rigzin Jora yesterday complained that excess cash of Ashajipora branch of J&K Bank and treasury worth Rs 58 lakh had been seized by Police. He alleged that it was part of the money to be used for buying the voters.
Government clarified that it was routine transition of excess cash from a branch to the District Treasury and that Returning Officer had examined the complaint, found it baseless and released the amount in favour of the District Treasury. Another major allegation from NC and Congress is that SSP Anantnag has kept around 1500 SPOs in civvies ready and they would be used for bogus voting in the low-turnout areas. Officials dismiss it as a routine election time allegation.
Official figures claim that just around 900 people attended Omar’s rally at Ranbirpora (Kehribal) and 800 at Krangsu. However, NC leaders insist that over 2,000 was the gathering at each place.
Even as nobody, not even the J&K stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad, would come from AICC headquarters to add some colour to the insipid campaigning, well-placed political sources revealed to this newspaper that Congress high command could depute Bollywood actor Raj Babbar and cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin to address a rally in Anantnag on the last day of campaigning on June 20th.
In the low-turnout election, Mehbooba is facing considerable threat from Hilal Ahmad Shah of Congress, who secured around 11,000 votes against late Mufti’s 16,000 in 2014. However, factional rivalry within Congress today could prove to be a big advantage for Mehbooba.
An Azad loyalist Manzoor Ahmad Ganai, who contested on Congress ticket in 2008, is known to be canvassing against the official candidate. There are similar credible reports about District Kulgam President Inayatullah Rather, senior Congress leader one-time J&K Prime Minister Shams-ud-din’s brother, advocate Abdul Majid Khateeb, District General Secretary Ghulam Mohiuddin Rishi, MLA Mohammad Amin Bhat and some others who are overtly and covertly campaigning against their own party candidate. None of them has an issue with the candidate Hilal Shah but in their belief Shah’s victory would strengthen J&K Pradesh Congress Committee President Ghulam Ahmad Mir’s influence. To cut him to size, almost all these Azad loyalists are working silently for the PDP candidate.
Mr Azad, according to some insiders, has obliged Ms Mufti by staying away from campaigning. Some of them insisted that in exchange for that favour, Ms Mufti would appoint Azad’s favourite Dr Abdul Gani Ahangar (former Head of CVTS Department and presently Director of a hospital in Meghalaya) as Director of prestigious Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Soura in the next few days. “At least between Mehbooba and Azad, there’s an understanding”, said a professor of Political Science.
Officially, Congress has divided the constituency into eight zones and different leaders and legislators, including MLA Kargil Asgar Ali Karbalayi, have been allotted each zone for campaigning. On Friday, Hilal Shah himself was absent from the constituency. His activists said that he had gone to Jammu for canvassing and a meeting with the migrant Kashmiri Pandits.
There are strong indications that this would be the lowest turnout election in Anantnag---an incontrovertible evidence of the Kashmiris’ disapproval of PDP’s alliance with BJP.