| A woman tests an electronic voting machine during a demonstration in Baramulla. (Reuters)
Srinagar, Aug. 28: A policeman is gunned down in Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar, in broad daylight near the Kashmir Motor Drivers’ Association office. Moments later, the ticket office of the association as well as some shops are set ablaze by angry policemen.
This is just a minor incident and luckily no one is killed in retaliation. But every day in some part of the state, whenever there is a terrorist attack, scores of innocent people suffer. Sometimes it is the paramilitary forces, more often it is the state police, especially the dreaded Special Task Force or the Special Operations Group, which comprises many surrendered militants,who get into action. Houses are set ablaze, people are harassed, young men dragged to interrogation centres and questioned for hours.
It is incidents like this as well as largescale corruption in the administration which has made chief minister Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference unpopular.
The Congress and Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party are hoping to reap the benefits of the people’s general disillusionment with the National Conference. The BJP, the other national party, has no presence in the Valley. It is also said to be losing popularity in Jammu, where it has traditionally had a base among the Hindus.
Congress state general secretary Taj Mohi-ud-din claims that if elections are not rigged, his party will be the largest single group in the Assembly. His optimism is not shared by many, though everyone says it will do better than last time. Mohi-ud-din says his party will win 25 of the 46 seats in the Valley, 25 of the 37 segments in Jammu and three of the four constituencies in Ladakh.
Three things are working in favour of the Congress. The first is naturally the National Conference’s dismal administration, the cronyism and corruption in government. Gujarat is the other factor. The bloodbath against Muslims has shocked Kashmiris. Some of the anger is directed at the National Conference as an ally of the BJP-led government in the Centre.
“The least one would have expected after the carnage was for the National Conference to walk out of the coalition. How can they be part of an administration which is killing fellow Muslims in Gujarat'” says Zahir, a postgraduate student in Kashmir University, who is also a devout Muslim.
Gujarat has reinforced the belief of all those in Kashmir who feel Muslims can never get a fair deal in India. Though Kashmiri Muslims have generally kept aloof from the rest of the Indian Muslim community, the Gujarat riots have shocked the state. The Congress hopes to benefit from the tough stand the party took against Narendra Modi.
Another issue that has made an impact in Kashmir is the Congress’ opposition to the draconian anti-terrorist legislation brought in by the Centre. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is extremely unpopular in Kashmir as the Farooq administration has used it liberally not just against suspected militants, but against ordinary citizens too. Kashmir police have made the largest number of arrests under the anti-terror law.
Kashmir Congress chief Ghulam Nabi Azad returned from Delhi on Tuesday with the list of nominations after getting the green signal from the high command. Till the morning, no one was sure if all the names in the list had been approved.
The Congress will emphasise on good governance, which, the party leaders say, will solve more than half the problems of the state. The party, like everybody else in the fray, complains that the state government has not provided its workers with adequate security. “It’s difficult to get all our people out if you know they have no protection against the terrorists. All National Conference workers, including district and block-level cadre, are well protected,” a Congress worked complained. The National Conference is the prime target of terrorists and has lost the largest number of workers in the state.
Under the circumstances, the Congress will be careful not to have too many open public meetings, though there will be some. They are hoping Sonia Gandhi and all other senior leaders will make it to the state.
“We want to project Ghaulam Nabi Azad as our candidate for chief minister. We want to tell the people we have a readymade leader waiting to take charge,” Mohi-ud-din says. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh has visited few constituencies in Kashmir and has got a good response, the party workers say. He is expected to come again.
Besides the National Conference, the Congress is the only major party which has a party machinery all over the state.
However, it is in a moribund state and needs to be recharged. The Congress is confident its supporters will come out and vote despite the terrorist threats.