The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kashmir strains for signs of change

Srinagar, Sept. 12: Khalid Mohammed learns his politics in Srinagar’s “Kashmir Golf Course” and pontificates in the “Unn Dres” bar.

“Delhi is determined this time and the Abdullahs won’t have it so easy,” the 34-year-old businessman says, three down. “Somehow there will be a PDP-Congress understanding and the National Conference will not have its way entirely.”

Mohammed Altaf, also 34, learnt his politics the harder way, as an activist with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) during its days in the underground. He is now a secretary with the Hurriyat Conference. He pontificates in the Hurriyat office in Rajbagh where he holds fort when the frontline leaders are in jail or away in Delhi.

“I firmly believe that the Election Commission and the Government of India will somehow conjure up a hung Assembly,” he says.

Neither Khalid nor Altaf will vote. Khalid because he will be out of station; Altaf because he considers the elections to be “meaningless.”

Last week, at a seminar in New Delhi, Suba Chandran, a research officer with the think tank, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), presented a study based on his “informal survey”.

Chandran’s study concluded that:

a) a majority of the people in the Valley will not participate because of bad governance and fear of rigging by the National Conference;

b) the Hurriyat will not participate because of i) fear of losing support; ii) little organisation and iii) absence of a charismatic leadership (with Geelani and Yasin Malik in jail and Lone assassinated).

This is why even the non-participants in the election have a role to play in the poll. They are interested — very interested — observers. They follow every development as closely as the contestants in the fray. Their reading so far: the poll will throw up a result that will seek to factor in the yearning for change.

“The elections are a yardstick to measure the popularity or otherwise of the National Conference, not of azaadi,” says Shabir Shah.

“And, I believe, if people vote, it will be to rid themselves of the NC. I’m quite certain the NC will not get a mandate; they can emerge as the single largest party.”

For entirely different reasons, vocal sections in Srinagar find themselves agreeing on the possible outcome of the elections. It means, also, that the system is seeking to co-opt change.

For itself, the ruling National Conference is straining to make that change part of its poll agenda. Primarily, it is seeking to do this by replacing Farooq Abdullah with Omar Abdullah.

There is a parallel in this with the CPM tactic in Bengal that reaped such a rich harvest for the Left Front when it replaced Jyoti Basu with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as the mascot. The crucial difference of course is that it was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, not Chandan Basu.

In Srinagar, at least, voices seeking change are easy to record: in shops, tea houses and in the bazaar. Whether that will be recorded also in queues before polling booths is all the more doubtful after the killing yesterday of National Conference candidate and state law minister Mushtaq Ahmed Lone in Lolab.

“There will be no queues, we know it,” says a state government employee, drafted in to help with the election machinery. Well, enough numbers then.

“People are not fools, they want peace,” says Sheikh Nazir, NC general secretary. “A vote for NC is a vote for peace.” NC leaders admit they are confronted with what they call an “anti-incumbency” factor.

Also, the party’s continued association with the BJP, particularly after the Gujarat pogrom, is a deep taint. The NC’s biggest strength has traditionally been its presence across all three divisions of the state — Jammu, the Valley and Ladakh. But Ladakh has given a thumbs-down to the NC in its two seats. The Valley will determine its fate.

“There is an emotional game that is going on,” says Bashir Ahmed, a soft-spoken professor and leader of the Kashmir University Teachers’ Association.

“You can’t say what exactly will happen. In many ways, it is a repeat of 1996 but then again tomorrow something can happen to make people turn out in large numbers. Though the elections have little bearing on the real issue, the NC cannot be disowned; neither can the militants, nor the Hurriyat. The Kashmiri is deeply emotional.”

This is where the killing of candidates, particularly the assassination of Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, still brings tears to dry eyes. The Kashmiri lives with violence but is still not habituated to it. Even with the bloodletting, every act of violence is interpreted and dissected for meanings.

Does yesterday’s killing mean that the militants will not allow the elections to go ahead' Was it the outcome of local politics' Why should a candidate who is perceived to be facing a tough contest be killed' What is the tactic: is it to enforce a countermanding of polls in many constituencies so that the elections are rendered meaningless even on paper'

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