| Omar Abdullah at a rally near Srinagar. (AFP)
Sept. 17: From the other side of the hillock by the bend in the Jhelum, a soldier on sentry duty at the gates of the army camp throws a pebble with an almighty heave. The stone soars over a field, pierces the green patina of hyacinth and vanishes into the water.
You would not know at first sight that this is the Wular lake. For the casual viewer, it is a flat green sheet. Three years ago, the army called in the navy’s marine commandos to scour its depths and fish out bodies — of militants’ victims — and a cache of contraband weaponry.
Like the Wular that conceals its gravitas, everything and its opposite are equally true of yesterday’s vote in the Valley.
That is why chief electoral officer Pramod Jain’s statement that “it (the poll) was historic” and the official figure — of a 45.4 per cent turnout — will have to go farther than being mere claims.
n People are afraid of the security forces (examples, Aitmula, Bandipora).
n People are afraid of the militants (Sunderwani, Bandipora).
n People use fear as an excuse for not voting (Ganastan, Sonawari).
n People are genuinely afraid of being caught in between (across the Valley).
n People were coerced to vote (Sangrama).
n People did not vote despite the coercion (Warpora, Sopore).
n People voted freely and there was no coercion (Yakhmanpora, Pattan, Sonawari, Uri, Gulmarg).
n People boycotted polls (Sopore, Bandipora, Baramulla).
There are reasons why the figure of 45.4 per cent will not wash.
First, the conduct of the polls itself.
While the Election Commission did, indeed, set up booths and went through with the process, the system was not tailored to meet the situation in the Valley.
In Anderkote (Sonawari), Lulad (Sangrama), and in Sangrama itself, at booths by the side of the highway, voting was practically by “open ballot”. The identity of the voter and button he was pressing was in public view.
In Lulad, the presiding officer, asked why he was holding the voting in the verandah of a house, replied: “In the morning it is too cold inside and in the afternoon it is too late to move in.”
In polling booth after polling booth in Baramulla district constituencies, election agents of even the important contestants were not present or even in the vicinity. At the Government Boys High School in Sangrama, the presiding officer said: “The voters have not taken their identity cards so we just ask the numbardar of the village to identify them.”
In Sopore, a presiding officer fumbles before switching on the voting machine with two hours to go before end of polling.
In another polling booth in Sonawari, a polling officer in an effort to demonstrate the use of the machine presses the activated button next to a party symbol. Clearly, the polling staff had been neither adequately trained nor briefed.
The second reason why the turnout figures will be suspect is that the elections have deliberately left out of the exercise a large chunk of people.
One of the most frequently heard grievances in the Valley is: “Who do we vote for' There is no suitable candidate. What use such elections that we have seen so often' These elections are not the democracy we want. Whether there is a vote or not, the ‘hal’ — the plough, symbol of the National Conference — will win.” (Javed Mustafa, Ganastan, Sonawari).
Repeated harping on the official turnout figure is likely to be interpreted in the Valley as a confirmation of suspicions.
The point is the elections have not reached out to the large number of people that the government, formed after these elections, will claim to represent. The people of this political constituency have de-linked elections from azaadi. Just as true, there is another section that turned out to vote — as in Handwara, Kupwara, Tanmarg (Gulmarg) — and the evidence suggests they were driven by a mix of azaadi and anti-incumbency.
This is the mix that is ticking away on Omar Abdullah’s ambition of securing the throne. If the number of people voting with this rationale increases in the second and third phases, the NC can be caught short of the mark.
A third and crucial reason shaping voter and “anti-voter” psyche is the objective of the poll.
“We want such a peace in Kashmir that a girl in her bridal finery should be able to step out on the streets in the dead of the night without fear,” says Dr Munib, physician at the sub-district hospital in Bandipora.
In New Delhi, the election could be seen as a tactic to gain legitimacy and as but one encounter in a game of competitive diplomacy. At a briefing in the capital last fortnight, one bureaucrat said: “India’s franchise in Kashmir will showcase a better democracy than the vote in Pakistan next month.” The Kashmir election is in danger of being reduced to an item in the regular Islamabad-New Delhi exchange of words.
Kashmir Valley today presents a unity of opposites straining for change.