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J&K Polls: How High Voter Turnout Takes a Hit on BJP’s Strategy in the Valley

The 38 percent turnout is huge for a constituency that has always sided with separatist-led boycott calls.

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The record voter turnout in the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency (highest since 1996) is likely to complicate the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) electoral strategy in Kashmir. The party appeared to have banked on low turnout considering that the fragmentation of the Valley’s political space will yield votes for new players (most of whom are accused of being BJP’s proxies) that have joined the fray.

Now, with the turnout finishing at 38 percent (in 2019, the turnout was 14.43 per cent), which is huge for a constituency that has historically sided with separatist-led boycott calls, it is likely that the very regional parties that the BJP wanted to keep at bay will emerge as victors. 

The Srinagar city looked completely deserted on 13 May, barring the occasional traffic. The voters were walking in twos and threes to the polling stations to cast their ballot. The Quint toured at least seven polling booths across different parts of Srinagar to gauge the public mood. 

The common refrain of the voters was centred around themes like unemployment, a hike in the electricity tariff, inflation, and drug addiction. Interestingly, no voter seemed inclined to talk about Article 370. Many did mention that they wanted to elect a candidate who was committed to protecting their “identity, jobs, and land.” 
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What Do the Voters Want?

At the prestigious Burn Hall School in Srinagar which housed at least three polling stations, young voters said it was the chronic joblessness in the Valley that had brought them to the booths. 

"I am an engineering graduate and still unemployed because there are no jobs here,” said Uzair Ahmed, a first-time voter. 

His friend, Talib Shafi, who had also turned up to vote for the first time said he wanted the elected candidates to fix the infrastructure in their area. "Last month, a boat capsized here causing many deaths. We don’t even have a bridge for that area,” Shafi said. 

At the voting booth inside MPML Higher Secondary School near Srinagar’s downtown area, voters shared their anguish with the Lt Governor’s administration, accusing it of being apathetic to them. 

"Look behind us,” said Muhammad Rafiq, a 50-year-old voter, pointing towards a power station. "We approached a senior engineer here multiple times requesting her to slash our tariffs. Electricity is becoming expensive. It is beyond our budget. But she was curt and disrespectful, and threatened to snap our connections.”

The men said that they wanted to bypass the "callous” officialdom and make the elected representatives accountable for their needs.
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A 'Larger' Political Resolution

At the Islamia Higher Secondary School in Gojwara, a locality where the political sway of Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq extends, the voting booths saw less footfall. 

On asking a group of local residents sitting on shopfronts why they hadn’t voted, this reporter drew flak. "It is unfortunate that some people have decided to disrespect the blood of those killed in the conflict,” one angry resident said. 

Others joined him, arguing that this region was still awaiting a larger political resolution, the revocation of Article 370 notwithstanding. “If anyone promises to work for that, then we will vote,” another resident added. 

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Parties Allege 1987 Redux

A day before the voting, the city was edged with excitement amid large-scale poll preparations. In Srinagar’s downtown area, women spoke about defying the convention of the boycott by going out to vote wearing a burka

However, the unusually upbeat political mood turned grim after candidates from prominent regional parties such as the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) levelled allegations that their polling agents were being detained arbitrarily by the police.

They alleged that a campaign of mass arrests was being orchestrated by the J&K Police which it has vehemently denied.
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Both the NC and the PDP sent letters to the Election Commission, calling its attention to what they alleged was an attempt to "manipulate the elections." 

The parties likened the situation to the 1987 Assembly elections when the Muslim United Front, a coalition of several independent-minded political parties lost to the NC-Congress combine, which was accused of rigging the polls. It was the anger with these elections that led to the outbreak of insurgency in J&K in 1989.

Many politicians have accused the polling agents of J&K Apni Party (JKAP), which has entered into a tacit political alliance with the BJP, of distributing cash to the voters at many polling stations in Srinagar. 
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BJP’s Withdrawal and the Waning Interest

Two major developments that are likely to influence the poll outcomes in Kashmir in a big way:

Firstly, the NC’s decision to contest independently, and not as part of an alliance, has fragmented the sense of political unity in Kashmir that would have infused much fervour to the electoral process and guided people along a single political path, making their choice easier, more concrete.

As one resident from Kulgam, a scholar at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, told The Quint, "Now people are directionless. The arrows point at far too many directions.”

Concomitant to this is the fact that the BJP hasn’t fielded any candidate on any of the three seats in Kashmir. Instead, the party leaders have, from time to time, reiterated that people in Kashmir should vote for any party other than the NC, PDP, and Congress – an obvious reference to new formations like JKAP and Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) that have featured in the aftermath of August 2019.
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The act of ceding the political space for regional parties has surprised people. The BJP had pulled all the stops to ensure it bags at least one of the three Kashmir-based Lok Sabha seats.

It had banked on the delimitation of the Anantnag seat (which saw areas of Rajouri-Poonch being attached to it), and incorporated the Pahari-speaking community into the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list, to maximise its chances of victory. 

But in what looked like an acknowledgement of failure, Union Home Minister Amit Shah admitted that the BJP is yet to "win the hearts" of people in Kashmir. He hoped to make that happen soon.

As one political analyst in Srinagar put it, the BJP would have turned this poll into a clear referendum against its decision to scrap Article 370 and landed in a difficult position had it been part of the fray. "The choice for the Kashmiris would have been very clear,” he said.

Steering clear of Kashmir’s political horizon, therefore, was a calculated decision for the BJP in the hope that the infighting among regional alliance partners would automatically muddy the broader picture and impact the judgement of voters. 

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The Voting Patterns

As of Sunday, it was not yet clear how much the BJP had succeeded in distracting the voters from cohering around a uniform political choice.

A day before the polls, many residents in Srinagar who spoke to The Quint framed the exercise of their electoral right in terms of the binaries of choosing between the greater or lesser evil. "My father and uncles will vote for the first time since 1987,” said Muhammad Uzair (23), a business graduate. "It is better to have some voice than have no voice at all.”

However, the hazy contours of the electoral battle for the Srinagar constituency grew into sharper focus by Monday evening.

Of the 17 lakh eligible voters, around 6 lakh and 69 thousand people have cast their votes. Voting took place across 18 electoral segments in the Srinagar Parliamentary constituency (to which new areas were added after the delimitation in 2022). 
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Although there were 25 candidates in the fray, the real political fight was centred around two marquee faces: Waheed Ur Rehman Para of the PDP, and Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi of the NC. 

Many political observers have predicted that an NC victory in Srinagar is a foregone conclusion. But the credit for ratcheting up the election frenzy undoubtedly goes to Para who had been turning up almost everywhere across the city, presiding over more boisterous rounds of political campaigning. 

"He is omnipresent,” one police official said. 

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Two Strong Contenders of Srinagar

Para (36) is an influential youth leader and was part of the previous BJP-PDP coalition which unravelled in 2018 in the run-up to the Article 370 Abrogation. He hails from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, parts of which are now with Srinagar Lok Sabha seat since the resizing of electoral seats in 2022. 

He is often credited for starting outreach programs with the youth of rural Kashmir and weaning them away from militancy when it started to peak again in 2016.

He has previously been lavished with applause by BJP stalwarts like Rajnath Singh. However, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested him in 2020 under terrorism charges. He remained in jail for around two years and was issued bail by JK&L High Court in 2022. 
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His youthful aura, personable visage – and a sense of him being subjected to "wrongful” imprisonment – strikes a chord with the youngsters across the region. On Twitter, young Kashmiris were uploading pictures, announcing that they had voted for Para. 

His political speeches also reflect a canny understanding of the issues that resonate with the Kashmiri public. He has broached issues such as the imposition of Property Tax, hike in electricity bills, the opening of the mineral resource extraction for non-local bidders, arbitrary arrests and more. 

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A Neck and Neck Fight

On the other hand, is Mehdi, a powerful Shia Muslim leader from the Central Kashmir town of Budgam, and a three-time former legislator. His 41-minute long video in which he rallied against the BJP and the RSS went viral in March 2021, bringing him into a wider spotlight.

That made him among the first political leaders of Kashmir to defy the climate of fear that was put in place by the Modi government since August 2019. Before that it had seemed nearly impossible for the politicians to speak along those lines.
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Mehdi’s own party colleague, Hilal Akbar Lone, had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) by the J&K Police for his political speech in February that year.

His appeal as a moderate leader who rose above the sectarian interests and championed the cause of Kashmiris across the religious lines has earned him a lot of goodwill. 

Monday’s voting pattern has an important insight to offer. Parts of the Srinagar Parliamentary seat that have registered the highest turnout – Ganderbal (53.05 per cent) and Budgam (52.42 per cent) – are the NC strongholds.
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While it would be wrong to assert that there’s an NC wave on the ground, the party stands to benefit from a general impression that voting will have to be guided by the logic of preventing the BJP and its alleged proxies from coming to power. On that count, the NC, a more organised cadre-based party is likely to have an upper hand. 

"It is not the Lok Sabha polls that matter most,” said one Srinagar-based political analyst. "It is the voting trends that it reveals that will be important. BJP's next electoral strategy will be predicated on that.”

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan Magazine, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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