Palhalan is a large hamlet that stretches northeast from the highway in north Kashmir. For the past decade, it has been considered the most volatile and alienated part of north Kashmir. Stone-pelting was almost reflexive, and it had a fiery edge.
No wonder only seven votes were polled in Palhalan in 2014. But despite that background, 11.7 percent or more than a thousand of Palhalan’s residents turned out to vote on Thursday. Some of them braved neighbours’ stones, and bore injuries.
This turnout is worth celebrating—but no cause for the sort of propaganda circus that has proved so counter-productive in the past. Stone-pelting had already receded in Palhalan over the past couple of years. So this turnout is only a clear marker of an emerging trend.
The hope behind this change must get a positive response. All those in authority and in power politics must dedicate themselves to ensuring that the people of Palhalan do not feel betrayed and enraged again.
A Remarkable Turnout
In that, as well as its turnout, Palhalan is a metaphor for the amazing sea-change visible across much of north Kashmir during the pulsating election campaign of the past couple of weeks.
This is remarkable not only because of the challenges of terror threats, boycott calls, and the recent trend of abysmal turnouts for local bodies elections, but in any case, for a Lok Sabha election in Kashmir—which tends to be of marginal interest at the best of times, unless towering leaders contest.
This time, the Valley’s high-profile leaders are indeed in the fray, but for the Srinagar (central Kashmir) and the Anantnag (south Kashmir) seats. National Conference President Farooq Abdullah is contesting the Srinagar seat, and the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) President Mehbooba Mufti, and state Congress President Ghulam Ahmad Mir are in the fray for the Anantnag seat.
Yet, it is in north Kashmir where the campaign has been pulsating the most. One reason is that there was no sign of fear of militants—which is strong in some south Kashmir districts. Indeed, on the eve of the election, Riyaz Naikoo, one of the only two remaining high-profile militants in the field, made a passionate audio appeal addressed to north Kashmir voters, to boycott.
On the other hand, north Kashmir saw a strong contest, unlike Srinagar, which most observers consider a cakewalk for Farooq Abdullah.
The dynamics of the north Kashmir battle too kept changing like a multi-coloured kaleidoscope. Shah Faesal’s resignation from the IAS first breathed life into the contest, for he hails from Lolab in the extreme north of the Valley.
While Faesal held back from contesting the Lok Sabha election, Sajjad Gani Lone’s People’s Conference (PC) party put its best foot forward – it fielded Raja Aijaz Ali, a retired Inspector General of Police from the Pahadi community, who left the PDP in order to contest on a PC ticket.
Citizens in his native Uri and the Karnah tehsil in the far north, have always voted in large numbers. Indeed, these areas had the best turnout on Thursday too, around 50 percent. Most of Karnah’s population identifies as Pahadi—a larger proportion than in Uri—but the total number of Karnahi voters is relatively small.
The Shia Factor
Raja Aijaz might have had a cakewalk if there had been an even lower turnout in areas other than the PC’s traditional vote bank, mainly in Handwara and Kupwara tehsils of Kupwara district, and the Shia vote bank of PC General Secretary Imran Ansari, mainly in Pattan.
The Ansari family has a semi-feudal hold over many of the Valley’s minority Shias. Ansari left the PDP to join the PC very soon after the BJP withdrew support to the PDP last summer.
A tour of the ground a couple of weeks ago indicated that Pattan might not prove a solid vote bank. And as the campaign climaxed, a meeting of a top PDP leader with a branch of the Ansari family might have further affected voting patterns.
A Strident Challenger in Engineer Rashid
Already, a spoiler for the PC’s calculations had turned up halfway through the campaign: the vociferous and agitation-prone ‘engineer’ Rashid jumped into the fray. Rashid has a solid support base in Langate, which he has represented in the last two assemblies.
The PC could have got many votes in the Langate area if Rashid had not been in the fray. Instead, Rashid not only held his home ground, his feisty campaign gained steam in the last few days. Rashid took a strident campaign position, promising to demand a plebiscite from the floor of the Lok Sabha. And in the last few days, he got the public support of the high-profile Shah Faesal, who announced he would vote for Rashid.
According to the grapevines, some other networked politicians with a solid footing in parts of north Kashmir also told their supporters to back Rashid. So, by polling day, Rashid seemed to be a serious contender.
The National Conference was already a strong contender.
Apart from the anti-incumbency sentiment against the PDP for its non-performance, many citizens wanted to use their vote against the BJP. The PC and PDP are seen to have, or have had, links with the ruling party at the Centre.
The NC is not viewed that way—despite PC leaders repeatedly pointing out that NC Vice-President Omar Abdullah was a minister in an earlier BJP government. It did not work, since Kashmiris by and large consider Mr Vajpayee, of whose government Omar was a member, poles apart from Mr Modi.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. 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.)