|Saturday, September 14, 2002||
THE ensuing Assembly elections in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir may not only signify a battle between the bullet and the ballot but also a war of wits between Islamabad, bent upon disrupting the democratic process, and New Delhi, which is determined to hold a free and fair poll. With more than 50,000 security personnel, comprising policemen, commandos and recruits of paramilitary forces, deployed on poll duty on the one hand and 4,000 to 5,000 militants operating within the state on the other hand, it seems that a tough battle lies ahead for the state. The current indications are that the militants may cause escalation of violence by attacking political activists, security personnel and even innocent voters in order to keep them away from polling booths. That the terrorists are hell bent on creating mayhem can be gauged from the fact that over the last one month at least 27 political activists, including 21 belonging to the National Conference have been killed. Among the important leaders who have been killed are Law Minister Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, the NC candidate from Lolab in Kupwara, who was shot dead on Wednesday by the militants and an Independent candidate, Abdul Rahman Sheikh, who was shot dead on September 6.
With more than 50,000 security personnel, comprising policemen, commandos and recruits of paramilitary forces, deployed on poll duty on the one hand and 4,000 to 5,000 militants operating within the state on the other hand, it seems that a tough battle lies ahead for the state. The current indications are that the militants may cause escalation of violence by attacking political activists, security personnel and even innocent voters in order to keep them away from polling booths. That the terrorists are hell bent on creating mayhem can be gauged from the fact that over the last one month at least 27 political activists, including 21 belonging to the National Conference have been killed. Among the important leaders who have been killed are Law Minister Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, the NC candidate from Lolab in Kupwara, who was shot dead on Wednesday by the militants and an Independent candidate, Abdul Rahman Sheikh, who was shot dead on September 6.
However, politically speaking, the elections seem to be generating a lot of interest. For the first time since the 1987 poll, the National Conference is facing competition from the Congress, the BJP, the PDP, the BSP and some heavyweight Independent candidates. The NC — which has projected Omar Abdullah, an alien to the state, as the chief ministerial candidate — would have been in hot water had the BJP, which wields influence in some areas of the Jammu region, not been plagued by internal dissensions. The RSS-led Jammu State Morcha has fielded its candidates in nine constituencies, which are a stronghold of the BJP.
With international attention on this militancy-hit state, the focus now will not only be on the poll results and the party which comes to power but also on the percentage of polling registered in the 83 Assembly constituencies in the state. Islamabad and its agencies have been at work to wreck the election process by ensuring that the separatist organisations, including the APHC, boycott the poll. A poor polling percentage will give an opportunity to Islamabad to convey to the world that people in Jammu and Kashmir are not for elections but favour a plebiscite.
The Government of India and its agencies have tried many times to woo the separatists and ensure that they enter the poll fray. Except for a few nonentities among the separatists, the main separatist groups have refused to take part in the elections right from the day the poll schedule was announced. Their initial contention was that since the poll was likely to be rigged, it would be a futile exercise to jump into the fray. Later, they said they would consider participating in the elections if they were held under the supervision of international observers. However, when the government turned down these demands, these separatist leaders thought of another excuse to keep away from the poll process. Chairman of the APHC Abdul Ghani Bhat and Democratic Freedom Party chief Shabir Ahmad Shah said that since the election “is not an answer to the Kashmir problem, we have no compelling reason to take part in it.”
They did not even accept Farooq Abdullah’s challenge, “If you (separatists) agree to take part in the election, I will step down.” They did not react when the Chief Minister declared that he would recommend holding of the poll under the Governor’s rule if the separatists decided to contest the elections.
It seems the separatists, realising that they were losing their grip on people, did not want to invite early political death by contesting the elections, for many among them were not sure of their victory. Their defeat would have left them with no choice but to seal their political establishments, set up in 1989. Moreover, their participation would have meant closure of pro-Pak centres in Kashmir.
With separatist groups out of the poll arena, the key players in the poll battle belong to the NC, the BJP, the Congress, the PDP and the
BSP. In addition, there are a number of Independent candidates.
In about nine of the 37 constituencies in the Jammu region, there will be a multicornered contest among candidates fielded by the NC, BJP, Jammu State Morcha, BSP and the Congress.
In 1996, the NC contested 81 seats and won 57. The Congress won eight seats from the 84 it had contested, the BJP eight out of 53, the Janata Dal five out of 77, the BSP four out of 32, and the Panthers Party one out of 44. Most Independents were rejected: out of 162 Independent candidates only three were elected to the Assembly.
During the 1996 poll, 53 per cent of voters had cast their votes. Poonch district, with three Assembly segments, figured at the top with 69.21 per cent polling, while Srinagar district, with 10 Assembly constituencies, was placed at the bottom with 25.06 per cent polling.
The NC had secured 34.79 per cent of the total polled votes, followed by the Congress (20 per cent), BJP (12.62), Janata Dal (10.91), BSP (6.45) and the Independents (11.77). This indicates that the split in the anti-NC voters facilitated the task of the National Conference of winning a two-third majority in the Assembly.
The possibility of a sharp split in the anti-NC voters in the current poll too is rated high because of the neck-and-neck fight between the Congress and the PDP in the Kashmir valley and among the Congress, the BJP and the BSP in the Jammu region, where a large number of Independent candidates are also in the fray.
Unlike the 1996 elections, this time large crowds have been attending election rallies organised by different political parties and Independent candidates. This is not because there is no perceived threat of militants, but due to the fact that people are now used to the bloodshed, grenade blasts and gunfire from across the border. They still yearn as much for peace as they did in 1996 when they thought that the restoration of a democratic set-up would restore normalcy and ensure economic development.
Though their hopes have been belied by what they call the misrule of the National Conference, they are still keen to cast their votes. A section of voters is keen to have a change of guard.
People’s interest in the poll process can also be seen by the large number of candidates in the field. In 24 out of the 26 constituencies (for two seats in Leh, candidates have been elected unopposed), where polling is to be held in the first phase on September 16, there are 162 candidates in the fray.
Since the number of voters has increased from 47.16 lakh in 1996 to over 56.10 lakh in 2002, the Election Commission has increased the number of polling stations from 6324 in 1996 to 7,000 in 2002. This time separate polling booths have been established for Kashmiri migrants in Jammu, Udhampur and Delhi despite the call for poll boycott given by several Kashmiri Pandit organisations.
The contesting parties have been raising a number of issues during the campaigning, including the demand for the trifurcation of the state and restoration of greater autonomy, but what everybody is waiting to see is whether the Prime Minister’s promise of holding the elections in a free and fair manner will be kept.
Attempts at rigging or coercion would receive the attention of not only poll observers but also of international agencies through their embassy officials and news channels and agencies.