| A presiding officer prays in an empty polling booth in Srinagar. (PTI)
Habbakadal, Sept. 24: Raman Mattoo expected a low turnout. But what he saw today, stunned even his seasoned soul.
“Sixty to 70 women clad in burqas have been making the round of my constituency in six to seven Sumos and other cars,” the Independent candidate from this constituency in Srinagar said at his residence on Gupkar Road.
“My activists even caught some of them. It is also intriguing that postal ballots have not been received. Something strange has happened in today’s polls. This is unbelievable.”
Unbelievable it was. Not even the reports of alleged large-scale rigging by National Conference activists could have prepared him for the incredible statistics. Only 1 per cent of voters cast their ballot here against the average turnout of 42 per cent in the 27 other constituencies that went to polls in the districts of Jammu, Srinagar and Badgam.
The Kashmiri Pandit should have known better. A couple of weeks ago, chief minister Farooq Abdullah had approached him with the request to withdraw from the fray in favour of the National Conference’s Shammima Firdoz. Abdullah even took Mattoo with him on his aircraft from Jammu to Kashmir to convince him, but failed.
Elsewhere, too, the script was not very different from that of the first phase on September 16. In Ganderbal, where chief ministerial candidate Omar Abdullah is contesting from, the story was more or less the same. National Conference workers could be seen cajoling voters to come out of their homes and cast their ballot. Those who made it to the booths were seen hurrying back. In booth No. 22, at Dudrama, only 17 votes had been polled till 3.15 pm.
At Beehama and Dudrama, policemen guarding polling stations could be seen asking journalists about the “situation” elsewhere. “Polling is negligible here. Is it brisk' Are people coming out'” were the repeated queries in Ganderbal.
At Kharyar, local residents complained that minister Ali Mohammad Sagar was leading the rigging brigade. “He is moving around in several vehicles with goondas, rigging the polls,” said Ghutam Geelani. “There is a total boycott of polls here.”
Sagar was also noticed in Munwarabag, Mattoo’s constituency. “What was he doing there is anybody’s guess,” Mattoo said.
Downtown Srinagar remained tense throughout the day. Shops were closed and people preferred to remain indoors. The fear of the militants had clearly prevailed.
Passing through Naushera, this correspondent saw a Pakistani flag fluttering in the middle of the street. As the vehicle slowed, the calm was shattered by cries of “hum kya chahte hain aazadi, la ilaha ill ill lalla”. A group of 50 youths surrounded the vehicle. “The voting today is zero here. Write the truth. We want freedom from India. We want our own state,” said Abdul Sattar, one of the youths.
Asked what the Pakistani flag was doing, Sattar said: “The Indian government only listens when we unfurl the Pakistani flag. Had the polls been for plebiscite, we would have all come out to exercise our right. But the polls are meant to form another government. We are not interested in such polls.”
At Badgam, there were reports of polling in certain pockets. It was, perhaps, the only district surrounding Srinagar where some polling took place. But the turnout ranged from low to moderate.
As expected, Lal Chowk, in the heart of Srinagar city, remained deserted. After yesterday’s encounter at Gogjibag, only gun-toting security personnel roamed the streets.
Journalists were thronged by small groups of local residents wherever they stopped. Everywhere the charges were the same: the National Conference had done nothing and people wanted it to go.