Srinagar : As the election campaign in the three Lok Sabha constituencies of the Kashmir Valley gathers momentum, one wonders whether these elections are about issues or families or both. The relative affluence in comparison to other parts of India has made electioneering different in the Valley.
Poll issues like farmer suicides, landless labourers, promises of largesse to people living below the poverty line are not, strictly speaking, relevant in the Valley. There is hardly any Kashmiri who does not have a house to live. Hardly anybody without two square meals, hardly a farmer who owns land that can’t be cultivated or has raised borrowings that might become a reason for suicide.
All children in cities, suburbs and villages go to schools and colleges. Post-graduates and even doctorates not getting jobs do not surprise visitors who once thought a matriculate had an inalienable right to get a government job in Kashmir.
Roads in cities and towns have potholes, but thanks to the national flagship road building programmes in rural areas, villages in Kashmir have blacktopped roads that make connectivity and access easier for people living there.
You hardly come across a Kashmiri who does not own a mobile phone, and many have phones with dual SIM cards.
Arch rivals in these elections are the ruling National Conference (NC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), while the Congress is an alliance partner of the NC.
The Valley has three Lok Sabha seats – Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag.
Both the NC and the PDP have promised better healthcare, more employment opportunities and better governance.
While the NC is headed by the Abdullahs (Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his father Farooq Abdullah) their traditional rivals, the Muftis, head the PDP.
Both these families strongly dismiss allegations of family-driven politics, but it is a fact that elections in the Valley have been political wars between these two families as the separatists stay away from these elections.
The Muftis accuse the Abdullahs of misgovernance and corruption, while the Abdullahs say the Muftis hobnob with the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level and are forging an unwritten understanding with the separatists in the Valley.
Both the NC and the PDP are trying to chip into the separatist sentiment by promising internal autonomy and self-rule.
The NC calls this brand of perceived “Independence within India” as autonomy, while the PDP calls it self-rule.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah says elections in Kashmir are only about development and routine administration.
“These are about Bijli, Pani and Sadak (electricity, water and roads), while the ultimate resolution of the Kashmir problem will have to be worked out by New Delhi and Islamabad,” he says.
The PDP tries to be one up on him and says if people bring it to power, It has a roadmap for the resolution of the Kashmir problem.
The separatists have called for a complete boycott of the Lok Sabha elections, but they know their appeals in the past haven’t moved beyond major cities and some towns.
“Who takes care of our day-to-day problems of unemployment, education, healthcare, the menace of drug abuse? Do these vital issues wait till the Kashmir dispute is finally resolved”, said a senior Jamaat leader, the parent organization of hardline Syed Ali Geelani.
Farooq Abdullah is seeking re-election from Srinagar, while Mehbooba Mufti seems to be well entrenched in south Kashmir’s Anantnag.
PDP’s senior leader Muzaffar Hussain Beigh is challenging Sharief-ud-Din Shariq of the NC in Baramulla.
Farooq Abdullah is a heavyweight, but many here believe PDP’s Tariq Hamid Karra could spring a huge surprise if he manages to dismantle the fortress the Abdullahs have built for over 60 years.
Baramulla, it is generally believed, can be won by either the NC or the PDP with both having an equal chance of victory.
Anantnag goes to the poll April 24, Srinagar votes April 30 and Baramulla May 7.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)