Anantnag Polls: Can Mehbooba Mufti Keep Her Winning Streak Going?

The PDP chief is contesting the most crucial electoral battle of her career after her party’s credibility was badly hit in south Kashmir.

Srinagar: Bijbehara is the home town of Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti. This is why, on April 15, when she went to address an election rally there, she expected a good turnout.

Her expectations didn’t materialise. Instead, her thin audience largely comprised of the elderly. A dejected Mehbooba, the PDP candidate for Anantnag seat, didn’t mince words to express her disappointment.

“We held rallies in north Kashmir (Baramulla seat) and Budgam (central Kashmir seat) and people turned up in the thousands. I don’t know what has happened to you people and why you have gone silent,” she said.

Also read: North Kashmir: Relatively Peaceful Polling Day Ends on a Sour Note With Teen’s Death

For Mehbooba, this Lok Sabha election is a crucial battle. Its outcome will not only have an impact on her political career, spanning over two decades, but it could well have a bearing on her party that is yet to recover fully from last year’s rebellion.

After its formation in 1999, the PDP’s rise on Valley’s political landscape coincided with its expansion in the south. In the years that followed, south Kashmir, comprising of four districts – Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam – became party’s stronghold.

On both the occasions the party went on to form the government in J&K, it got maximum seats from the south – 12 in 2002 and 11 in 2014. Now, this is the first major election after the 2016 summer uprising. The killings, both of militants and civilians, which have continued since then, have dented credibility of the PDP in the south, once its bastion.

Also read: New Delhi’s Muscular Approach to Kashmir Reflects Its Policy Paralysis

Today, anything related to mainstream politics has largely become a symbol of hate across southern Kashmir. The Election Commission of India (ECI) had to altogether cancel by-polls to the Anantnag parliament seat after the exercise couldn’t be held for three years when it had fallen vacant in April 2016.

In this scenario, holding the election is certainly going to be a challenge for both EC and the government.It could also explain why the election body deiced to hold polls in three phases to the constituency. More importantly, this poll will be a referendum on the PDP and Mehbooba’s popularity in the constituency.

Worry in Anantnag and Kulgam

Mehbooba’s challengers include National Conference’s Hasnain Masoodi, a retired judge and a new entrant into politics, and Congress’ Ghulam Ahmad Mir, a veteran in state. The fight is expected to largely be between Mehbooba and Mir.

Congress supporters raise slogans during an election rally attended by Ghulam Nabi Azad and MP candidate Ghulam Ahmad Mir in Anantnag district on April 16, 209. Credit: PTI

In the twin districts of Anantnag and Kulgam, six of the 10 assembly segments – Kokernag, Dooru, Shangus, Pahalgam, Devsar and Noorabad – have a history of high voter turnouts. In all these segments, however, the PDP’s influence has withered over the years.

There, the competition is between Congress and National Conference, even though PDP has pockets of influence. The turnout in these segments will, to a large extent, decide which way the polls will swing.

Mehbooba’s worries don’t end there. In her home constituency of Bijbehara and Anantnag, which she won in 2016 by-election, and went on to become J&K’s first female chief minister, the chances of a poll boycott loom large. While Anantnag district is going to the polls on April 23, Kulgam district will vote on April 29.

The leftist leader, M.Y. Targami, who has won the past four assembly elections from Kulgam constituency, has extended his support to National Conference.

“If you analyse the entire constituency assembly segment wise, the poll arithmetic is not in PDP’s favour. The segments where the party has strong influence are not in polling mood. The party is weak in traditional voting belt of the constituency (the six assembly segments) and large turnout there will go against the party (PDP),” said senior journalist Khalid Gul, who has extensively covered south.

Anti-poll mood in Pulwama and Shopian

Credit: Reuters

Both Pulwama and Shopian have been strongholds of the PDP. In the past three state elections, the party has consistently won all the six assembly segments from these districts.

Since 2016, most of the militant and civilian killings in the south have taken place in these two districts, pushing them on the edge. In the past one month, at least seven civilian killings have taken place across south Kashmir; the first one in Pulwama, just two days day after dates for Lok Sabha polls were announced.

The protests and shutdowns have become a norm there. In the recently held local bodies elections most of the wards in 7 municipal committees of the twin districts ether didn’t witness contest at all or the contenders were elected unopposed.

Also read: Amid Simmering Anger Over Militant Killings, Poll Fervour Missing in South Kashmir

In the prevailing situation, and given the mood there, these districts, going to the polls on May 6 are expected to witness people staying away from booths. It certainly will be disadvantage to the PDP.

That none of the political parties including PDP have been able to hold even a single rally in these districts and have limited there campaigning to official buildings in other two districts has added to the worries of the party.

“We are holding our first election rally in Shopian on April 24… the elections in these districts are being held in the last phase and we are hopeful that people will come out to vote and repose trust on the party and the leader they have voted for in the past,” said Aijaz Ahmad Mir PDP’s former MLA from Shopian’s Wachi constituency.

Also read: Mehbooba Mufti Now Stands Alone, Staring at a Shaky Political Future

A senior party functionary talked about “anxiety” within ranks of the PDP vis-à-vis the situation in the districts. “Not only for the party, it is not going to be good for the state if people didn’t come out to vote this time,” the party member argued.

While both NC and Congress have competed for second position in the elections in the two districts, the latter have certain pockets of influence, Pampore in Pulwama and Wachi in Shopian.

In past elections, the PDP has also banked on supporters of Jama’at-e-Islamia, a religio-political organisation. The organisation stands banned and its cadre is either under arrest or on the run.

Factors that favour PDP

According to Gul, a majority of the votes that would be polled in Shopian and Pulwama will go to the PDP. But it remains to be seen what percentage of voters will turn up.

Also, the PDP will be banking on its cadre in several areas of Anantnag and Kulgam like Dachinpora on Bijbehara-Pahalgam road which comprises of dozens of villages like Salar, Kullar, Sirgufwara, Khiram-Sirhama, Marhama, and its loyalists in Bijbehara and Anantnag towns and Mattan. In Kulgam the party will be hoping for its support in villages like YK Pora, Churath, Aakhran, Nowpora, Pohlu in and remote villages of Qazigund.

Also read: Mehbooba Mufti Signs off on PDP’s Election Strategy for South Kashmir

Mehbooba has never lost any election in her political career. She has won parliament polls twice from Anantnag seat and secured four wins in state assembly elections on four different Assembly segments.

This is her seventh electoral battle. “But this one is entirely different,” said political analyst Ashiq Hussain.

“She (Mehbooba) is fighting this election after her party earned huge unpopularity, first by shaking hands with BJP, and then due to the deaths and destruction in south Kashmir when the party was in power. These and many factors make the election a tough battle for the party (PDP),” Hussain said.

The odds are not in Mehbooba’s favour, Hussain added.

Will the PDP chief manage to keep her winning streak going? Only time will tell.