| Ballot, not Battle, gear: A poll official tries on a bullet-proof jacket and headgear in Poonch. (Reuters)
Srinagar, Sept. 15: The Valley votes and does not vote tomorrow, ringed by artillery on the border, the politico-military machinery in the centre, the diplomatic community as overseers and the world’s media as recorders.
“I know that the situation is not ideal,” state chief electoral officer Pramod Jain said. “But you will find that elections have been held despite conditions not being ideal. For instance, in Kosovo.”
All sides geared up today for the first phase of polling that can set the trend for the rest of the election. It could just as well be reason for more violent outcomes.
nThe army and security forces began intensive combing operations last night, rounding up suspects and putting more road-opening patrols in position to clear highways of improvised explosive devices.
nNear the LoC, the army prepared for intensive shelling in what can be a repeat of events during the 1996 poll.
nIn Srinagar, 16 diplomats arranged logistics for travel tomorrow, telling the state government that they “wanted transport, not guides”.
nIn the towns, another frisson of fear swept through after the state tourism minister and National Conference candidate from Anantnag was ambushed this morning, (She survived, her securitymen were killed; Anantnag goes to polls in the third phase).
nIn villages, people mostly kept indoors, left for other (safer) places or simply waited for the morrow to unfold.
nIn Delhi, chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh appealed to voters not to disappoint the visiting diplomats.
Twenty-eight diplomats will be in the state during the elections. Sixteen diplomats reached here this morning.
“I am told (that) we will be taken by helicopter to Baramulla (just an hour’s drive from Srinagar). From there, we will have transport which we will take to places we want to visit. We have asked for transport, and not for a conducted tour,” a diplomat said.
For a place that is just a Valley that can be driven across from end to end in four hours, the elections have been vested with unprecedented importance.
For India, a peaceful poll will be interpreted as conferring legitimacy; for Pakistan, a violent poll with little participation will be grist to Pervez Musharraf’s mill. For Kashmir and its people, their home will continue to be the battleground of competing diplomacies, the razor’s edge of brinkmanship.
In feedbacks from recent visits, the diplomat said: “We’ve learnt of apprehensions that there might be poor voting in the towns and forcible voting in the villages. We would like to check that out.”
If Kashmir is the arena, Kupwara is the ring. The district, just north of Srinagar, has had the bloodiest, tensest days leading up to the poll.
Kupwara is both town and country, the bridge between the urban and the rural. It is also along the LoC. The radical extreme of parliamentary candidates is in the fray here, with the National Conference and the Congress. Kupwara can define the poll.
In the 23 seats in the Valley for tomorrow’s polling, a low turnout is more than likely in the towns. The National Conference stands to benefit more than the others from poor attendance.
Fear will be the overriding factor that will determine attendance.
In the 25 days leading to the poll, nearly 150 casualties have been reported, the most high-profile being law minister Mushtaq Ahmed Lone’s killing. As the violence intensified, the initial enthusiasm for the poll — due, mainly, to the presence of rebel candidates — began dissipating.
Officials admit that the election is anything but flawless. In Handwara, the Election Commission changed polling officials overnight after a (non-NC) candidate threatened to “withdraw” if they were not substituted.
Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s Peoples’ Democratic Party is keeping its options open on “continued participation” in the polls.
“We will decide after seeing tomorrow’s poll on whether the PDP will remain in the fray for the next phases of the elections or whether we will withdraw,” general secretary Tariq Hamid Kurra said.)