| A Kashmiri election officer waits for his turn to collect electronic voting machines in Srinagar on Sunday. (Reuters)
It’s 178 km to Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, from the corner of Srinagar’s famous Hazratbal shrine with its relic of the Prophet. Every candidate in the electoral fray criticises the ruling People’s Democratic Party for putting up the large sign, but the chief minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, is defiant.
“We want to focus on unity,” he tells me. “The perception in Pakistan is that we are prisoners of the army. Let them see how keen we, too, are on our Kashmiri identity.” He claims to have persuaded Atal Bihari Vajpayee to raise the India-Pakistan talks from the level of civil servants and stresses the importance of confidence-building measures. He sees the cross-border dialogue and the current election, with the PDP stressing economic development, as integral to the healing democratic process. Signboards are part of the stabilisation of relations.
The PDP is contesting only three of the state’s six Lok Sabha seats. The Mufti’s daughter, Mehbooba Sayeed, is one candidate, Kazi Nizamuddin from Baramulla another. The third is Ghulam Nabi Lone, a quiet stocky advocate who is already a member of the legislative council but is contesting from Srinagar.
He takes me for a long drive through the winding lanes of the old city plastered with posters that cleverly play on the party’s initials. “Another name for the PDP,” they read above his picture, “is Peace, Development, Prosperity”.
Lone’s father was also a legislator; he says his grandfather was the Congress party’s first member from Jammu. It’s about all he does say. With us in the car, Sadiq Ali, pink-cheeked and silver-haired, dapper in brown tweed and cream slacks, a National Conference MLA for 18 years before he switched parties, does the talking. “Mr Lone is a perfect gentleman. He is the most dignified candidate.”
I can believe it. In fact, I wonder if Lone is not too dignified for a contest in which nobody else — certainly not his opponent, the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah — bothers with gloves.
It is Sadiq Ali who tells me as we skirt the high walls of the Zadadal Shia imambara that the National Conference spent more than Rs 13 crore on pulling down an ancient edifice and building a new one when the money was desperately needed for schools. To add insult to injury, Farooq Abdullah, then chief minister, did not even consult him, though the imambara lay in his constituency.
It is Sadiq Ali, too, who shows me where a carpet dealer illegally filled in a corner of the Dal Lake in Saidekadal and built a mansion with outhouses. That was also during National Conference rule when the carpet dealer, apparently, boasted he could buy any member of the government with a carpet.
The chief minister looks beyond electoral polemics. The previous Assembly election broke the India-Pakistan ice, he tells me, and this one is taking the democratic process further. His emphasis is on bread and butter issues. “That’s what people are most interested in — jobs, schools, houses, roads, the economy.”
We are sitting in the heavily guarded lawn outside his bungalow whose sheer white walls, red tin roof and wooden fretwork faintly resemble the late Chogyal of Sikkim’s Palace in Gangtok. This was where Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed once lived. It might be a fortress, with rifles poking out of sentry towers at regular intervals and even the pavement along the outer walls barricaded into a security perimeter.
Why is his daughter abandoning the Assembly, where she is already a member, to get into Parliament' The Mufti explains that there is a great deal of disinformation about Kashmir. He addressed a Chatham House meeting in London some months ago and was astonished to find what a negative view the British had. The voice of the people should be heard loud and clear outside the state. That will be Mehbooba’s role.
Why not his son’s' He laughs and says his son is in Hollywood. He has a diploma in cinematography from there. For now it looks as if the Mufti title, blending the traditional authority of law and religion, that has been in his family for 700 years and is so much part of Kashmir’s past, will die with him.