| A woman at a Jammu polling station. (AFP)
Samba, Sept. 24: If the voters of border villages did not turn up in full strength today, it was not for want of enthusiasm but because of the administration’s inability to provide transport.
Undeterred by two rounds of firing by Pakistan around 8 am, the people of Bainglad — barely half a kilometre from the border and 40 km from Jammu — were waiting in vain an hour later for buses to take them to booths in Samba 12 km away. By 2 in the afternoon, a couple of hours before polling was scheduled to end, those who could not make it sounded dispirited.
“Now we will have to wait another for five years, that’s if we are still alive,” said Gurmeet Singh, a peasant. “The administration seemed to have deliberately delayed sending buses for us. They probably sensed the popular mood was against the ruling National Conference,” he added.
Ten km from Bainglad, the people of Jasochak — part of the Vijaypur Assembly constituency — were in high spirits. By 11 am, almost 80 per cent of them had cast their votes because they were lucky enough to have a booth within walking distance in a school at Abtal.
“The enthusiasm is much more this time because we have a candidate who helped us when we were attacked by Pakistan and had to leave our homes. He fought with the Farooq government to set up relief camps and get us rations,” said Charan Das Singh. The “messiah” is Manjeet Singh of the Bahujan Samaj Party who is pitted against National Conference candidate Surjeet Singh Salatia.
The supporters of Singh and Salatia had a skirmish outside a polling booth in Ramgarh because members of the ruling party alleged that their supporters from the Gujjar community were prevented from voting by the BSP’s Jats.
The Jats, who are Hindus, alleged that chief minister Farooq Abdullah tried to change the demographic composition of the Hindu-majority Jammu region by encouraging the Valley’s Gujjars, who are Muslims, to settle in the plains.
The ruling party was at the receiving end in Samba when the Congress, the BJP and the BSP charged the presiding officer of a polling station, S.A. Khan, with “tampering” with the voting machine to help the ruling party. Polling was suspended for more than three hours after an angry mob protested in the main market and was lathicharged by the police.
Khan, who hails from Punjab, said: “I told the political representatives that it was a mechanical fault, but they were not ready to listen. They insisted on a repoll.” Before polling resumed, the machine was sealed and tucked away and a new one installed in the presence of the politicians.
Despite the glitches, a 50 per cent turnout was recorded by 3 pm, which is neither spectacular nor poor. At stake is the fate of five ministers, including Ajatshatru Singh, the son of Karan Singh. Given the anti-incumbency sentiment, the general perception is that the ministers would find it hard to retain their seats.
In 1996, the National Conference got four of the 13 seats in Jammu, belying the belief that it had no chance of opening its account in this Hindu-majority belt. If this time it lost, political observers believe it would be not so much because of the communal factor but the reading that the five ministers were not up to the mark.