Handwara: On Thursday, the candidates of People’s Conference, National Conference and Awami Itehad Party filed nominations for Handwara constituency before a poll official. All were proclaimed lions and led to the official in processions by their frenzied supporters. It appeared that a small pride of lions had descended on the town to drive each other out, rather than lay claim over a territory.
“Naqli shera yati wat dera, asli shera agaya (fake lion, fold up your belongings, the real lion has arrived),” shouted PC chief Sajjad Lone’s supporters. The fake lion is a reference to Omar Abdullah.
Although most of his supporters admit he would win not more than three seats, yet a verbal volley at Abdullah shows that they believe Sajjad is going to play a role that would be bigger than that of an MLA. Whether he does, only time will tell, but he is talk of the town this time and his entry has made the contest interesting for various reasons.
The PC led by Sajjad (the other faction led by his brother Bilal Lone remains in the pro-freedom camp) will be contesting the seat, considered its bastion, under its own name for the first time after 1987 election; it had fielded Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi as an independent candidate by proxy in 2002.
Sajjad has staked not only his reputation but also that of his father, late Abdul Gani Lone, who had shunned pro-India politics after the controversial 1987 elections and embraced pro-freedom Hurriyat Conference until his assassination in 2002. The Indian media has portrayed Sajjad’s candidature and his subsequent meet with Narendra Modi as one-time separatist’s return to the ‘national fold’.
Also, after his defeat in Lok Sabha polls, Assembly polls would be one more test of his decision to try electoral politics as an alternative to his brief tryst with “separatism”.
His meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, which his rivals are likening to a betrayal of his father’s legacy, does not seem to have dented his support base.
“We don’t care about whoever he aligns with after elections. We are voting for what late Lone sahab did for this constituency,” said Zahoor Ahmad.
Another PC supporter, Shamim Ahmad, said, “It does not happen every day that a Prime Minister meets a person who is yet to become an MLA. He must have seen something in Sajjad sahib.”
At a tea shop in Handwara town, PDP supporter Sajjad Ahmad told three to four National Conference supporters who were taking a break after having accompanied their ‘lion’ Chowdhary Mohammad Ramzan to the nomination official, that they “committed a grave mistake” by joining the fray. According to him, the PDP will win convincingly.
PDP candidate Sofi is late Abdul Gani Lone’s protégé and Sajjad had himself green flagged his nomination for 2002 polls.
“Muzaffar Hussain Baig is PDP Member of Parliament. Sofi sahib, Nizamudin Bhat and Abdul Haq Khan are PDP MLAs. All of them are People’s Conference products. Are all of them wrong and only Sajjad is right?”
One of the NC supporters, Farooq Ahmad, a man in late forties, laughed.
“Dream on. Ramzan sahib is going to win,” Farooq said. He then turned towards us and counted the development works Ramzan has accomplished in this stint, his fourth since 1983.
“No doubt he did those things but what about that NC halqa president whose 18-year-old son, 23-year-old son, 25-year-old son, all got government jobs,” the PDP worker asked.
The NC workers quizzically looked at each other. One of them confirmed the PDP supporter’s claim.
When told that given the popularity of both Sofi and Ramzan votes might get divided and eventually help Sajjad, both NC and PDP workers despaired of such an outcome.
“God forbid, if he wins that would mark the beginning of goonda Raj. That would be a catastrophe for Handwara. Why do you think BJP didn’t field a candidate in Handwara? There is a pact between them and Sajjad Lone,” the PDP supporter said. The NC workers spoke of an attack on a police official by PC workers as an example.
“If on the election day we sense the PC is winning then at that moment we will decide among ourselves whether to elect Chowdhary sahib or Sofi sahib. Come what may, we won’t let Sajjad win,” the PDP supporter said.
Sofi is not the only former PC protégé who has gone irretrievably against it. Awami Ittehad Party led by former PC supporter and MLA, Engineer Rashid, has fielded Ajaz Ahmad Sofi from Handwara.
Ajaz and Rashid were riding atop a car, waving to their supporters and onlookers, while on way to the nomination office. When they entered the town, Sajjad’s supporters were leaving. The two groups were in each other’s earshot.
A lean teenager by Rashid’s side shouted into the microphone, “Modi ka jo yaar hai, gadaar gadaar hai (Modi’s friend is a traitor)”.
Another shouted, “PC zeini, tim chhai kathai, Sajjad zeini, tim chhai kathai (PC will win, Sajjad will win, all empty talk).”
But Sajjad’s loyal followers dismiss the slogans. “If they can win riding PC’s shoulders, we can win on our own,” said Mohammad Shabaan, an old loyalist. He said the people of the area have seen enough of both Ramzan and Sofi and it was time for ‘badlaav’, change.
After filing nomination papers, Sajjad talked about the change that was to come. “The army has apologized for Macchil killings. It is one sign of the change that is to come.”
However, PDP and NC workers dismiss Sajjad as an outsider who “lives in Srinagar and whose loyalty remains to his father’s native place in Kupwara.”
“You remember that TV report again in which a Shiv Sena leader (Kalki Maharaj) was shoving late Lone Sahab? Sajjad Lone should have watched that again before joining hands with the BJP,” said Fayaz, an NC supporter.
At the tea stall, 22-year-old Asif Ahmad said voting for any pro-India leader was an “exercise in futility”.
“They are all the same,” he said. But that didn’t prevent him from extolling Ramzan as a “technical” man and Sofi as an “honest politician”.
“By technical I mean there is no one like him when it comes to getting things done. But the biggest flaw he has is that he only wants to keep the party’s supporters, especially the overbearing old men, happy,” he said.
About Sofi, he adds, “Sofi sahib is an honest politician but he can’t deliver. If you go to him for help in seeking the release of an arrested youth, the first thing he will say is ‘he must have done something wrong’. He is not a doer.”—Additional reporting by Moazum Mohammad