SRINAGAR: As Lok Sabha elections inch closer, stage seems set for an unusual and interesting four-way battle for the prestigious Srinagar parliamentary constituency between big shots and minors of pro-India politics in the Kashmir Valley where poll boycott still plays the dominant deciding factor.
For a change, the majors in Kashmir’s pro-India politics—National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)—will be challenged by New Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and North Kashmir-based Awami Itihaad Party (AIP) for political supremacy in the constituency.
If things stay unchanged in the weeks prior to the poll-day, AAP’s Dr Raja Muzzafar and AIP’s Rashid Rahil will contest against NC’s Dr Farooq Abdullah and PDP’s Tariq Hameed Karra. This interesting setting will test the newcomers’ popularity and stand for ‘honest-politics’ against the experience of controversial Abdullah and dormant Karra.
Srinagar constituency, spanning three districts of Srinagar, Budgam, and Ganderbal, has been surely but controversially a strong hold of NC. Abdullah was elected to the Indian parliament from here in the last two elections held in 2002 and 2009. His recent success and the preceding history is perhaps what led Abdullah to declare: “I will contest from Srinagar until I am dead.”
He made the declaration at his father Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah’s graveyard where he announced candidates for Lok Sabha seats.
However, Abdullah has been surrounded with controversies, of late. Not that the outspoken, staunchly pro-India NC president is unknown to controversies, but the electorate may not see negative publicity as an appealing trait given the variety offered to them in the changing (or changed) political landscape of the Valley.
Not long before the elections were announced, Abdullah enraged civil society and the politicians across the board when he chose to describe Kashmiris as ‘Maha Choor’ (big thieves). The fury that the remark generated made Abdullah to rebut his statement. “I didn’t say it,” he was made to state in his defence with politicians’ typical shield: “I was misquoted.”
There are, however, more serious developments linked to Abdullah. He was accused of involvement in multi-crore scam in the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association. And more recently, his name figured in the long list of corrupt politicians prepared by AAP, which made a grand beginning to its political career with a magnificent victory in the New Delhi assembly elections.
It is what actually made AAP—the party claiming to have taken responsibility to root out corrupt politicians from Indian politics—to contest elections from Srinagar. And of the thousands of volunteers approaching it, it has given the mandate to Muzzafar—the medico-turned-RTI activist-turned-politician from Budgam.
Muzzafar was one of the pioneer’s of J&K RTI Movement—the body of RTI activists mostly from Budgam. He joined PDP in 2012 for a brief period till he resigned “in the backdrop of Afzal Guru’s hanging.” His political affiliation, and some undisclosed reasons, nonetheless cost him his place in the J&K RTI Movement. Muzzafar is learned to have been nominated by AAP on recommendations of an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer posted in north Kashmir.
Muzzafar attempted to start his election campaign with a road show in Bandipora in north Kashmir recently, but unidentified persons stoned the show. He and his AAP associates had to seek refuge in police stations till the tension calmed down, allowing them to escape.
Prior to Muzzafar, AIP boss Engineer Rashid had expressed desire to join AAP, impressed by the politics and performance of the latter. But AAP wasn’t impressed with the aam aadmi-profile Rashid claims to have. Rashid, it is reliably learnt, wasn’t encouraged by AAP due to his political background.
On Saturday, AIP announced that it is going to contest elections on all three parliamentary constituencies of the Valley. And it has chosen Rahil for Srinagar, who is a journalist-turned-politician. Another new face in politics, Rahil depends on the upcoming polls for assessing his chances against the political majors and to give himself a presentable political profile.
Both AAP and AIP are banking on their stand for honest and corruption free politics. But only polls can say whether or not they have made fit choices to challenge someone of Abdullah’s political-stature. On cards, the candidates’ profile certainly looks thin when compared to those they aim to challenge.
Unless there is a surprise in store, inexperience of Muzzafar and Rahil, therefore, makes it a battle between NC and PDP. Interestingly, the principal opposition party too appears to have opted for a conservative approach rather than coming up with a brave move, like pitching a Mehbooba Mufti or a Muzzafar Beig, against an Abdullah. Consequently, it will be Karra, who has been dormant in politics ever since his loss in previous assembly and parliamentary elections, challenging Abdullah.
While the candidates ready for battle with a yet-unfound campaigning, the possibility of the boycott and role it usually plays in deciding winners and losers is something to look out for. The last assembly elections, NC managed to be the party winning most number of seats was because of district Srinagar where least number of electorate cast votes; majority in the summer capital responded to, and they usually do, poll boycott call from the pro-freedom camp. All eight assembly seats from Srinagar district had gone to NC’s kitty with what was believed to be the doing of boycott.
With the pro-freedom camp having called for the upcoming elections this time also, the turnout in district Srinagar may not be much different from that of the past. But in addition to Srinagar, most of the Budgam district has threatened boycott of the parliamentary elections in case the government extends the lease of Tosmaidan firing range to Indian army. What Budgam does depends on the decision government is expected to announce before April 18—the date on which the lease expires.
It thus appears to be a five-way contest between two newcomers, two seasoned politicians, and boycott. Who beats whom depends on how electorate chooses to behave on April 30 when Srinagar constituency goes to polls.