READY TO VOTE
Rural, and some parts of urban Kashmir will vote, and vote with a gusto. Last Tuesday's record turnout of 71% in the first phase was just the curtain-raiser. Far off in Kupwara district, at the northern-most part of the Valley, campaigning was going on in full swing when this newspaper visited the area. The candidates of the National Conference, People's Democratic Party and People's Conference were addressing small meetings ahead of the elections that will be held on Tuesday, 2 December. In Kandi Khas, Petgulgam and Batergam the villagers were united in their response: "We will vote, because we need change." The sentiments were similar in towns such as Handwara and Kupwara, and in the rural parts of Baramulla district. It was only in places like Sopore, the hometown of hardline separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and flood-ravaged Srinagar that the mood was sullen. Sopore brushed off all questions with a resentful "we are for boycott". But a section in Srinagar, which does not follow Geelani, said that election related hooliganism may not allow them to step out of their homes. If the separatists do not enforce a boycott on polling day on 14 December, in the fourth phase, even Srinagar might see a better turnout than earlier elections.
The word "change" is all set to devastate Omar Abdullah's National Conference government. Two hundred metres from where the nattily dressed Choudhary Mohammad Ramzan, an NC minister, was meeting voters in the Handwara Assembly segment, young villagers were talking of Sajjad Lone of People's Conference. Choudhary, the sitting MLA from Handwara, is one of the NC's strongest candidates and has won this seat several times. He promised to this newspaper that he would make Lone, his opponent, "eat humble pie". But it just took a walk through the main market of Handwara, to realise how anger against him had built up.
This popular desire for "change" has forced Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to flee from his family seat of Ganderbal to the "safer" constituencies of Sonawar and Beerwah. Abdullah's candidate in Ganderbal is Ishfaq Jabbar, a local heavyweight, who deserted the Congress to join the NC. "If Jabbar had stayed with the Congress he could have won the seat, but now that he is with the NC, no one will vote for him," said the taxi driver taking this correspondent around Ganderbal. The unintended beneficiary of all this is likely to be a former minister with the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed government, a rotund Qazi Afzal of the People's Democratic Party. The BJP's candidate here is another local, Sheikh Abdul Rashid. "Yes, of course even the BJP candidate will get votes. His village will vote for him," said a surprised young man attending Qazi Afzal's meeting at Sehpora village, when asked whether the BJP had any votes in Ganderbal.
Local candidates and loyalty are two factors that may have a greater impact on voters than any ideology. Hina Bhatt, the BJP's candidate from Amira Kadal in the heart of Srinagar is a young dental surgeon. Her father was once an NC MP. Bhatt was supposed to contest from Amira Kadal in the 2008 Assembly elections on a Congress ticket, but could not because her son was two months old. "The constituency people would keep coming and say if your father cannot contest, why don't you do so?" she says, sitting in her office-cum-residence at a flood-devastated Rajbagh. She admits that she is asked "ten times a day" why she joined the BJP. Her reply is: "That is because I could not see the other parties being to able to bring in any change." Bhat, who is going door to door to meet the voters, often gets to hear, "Our things were washed away in the flood, we did not receive any relief. Please tell the Centre to help us." She believes that it's a positive sign that the people are seeing her as a representative of the ruling party in Delhi and believe that it can deliver.
BJP's second women candidate, Darakhshan Andrabi too brings her own small vote bank with her. A self-made politician and social worker, she has merged her "staunchly nationalistic" Socialistic Democratic Party with the BJP and is now going door-to-door seeking votes in Srinagar's Sonawar Assembly segment. Her opponent? Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. In the face of seemingly impossible odds, Andrabi is cheerful. Meeting this newspaper at a hotel where she stays under security cover, she says, "Why will people vote for Omar Abdullah? Srinagar is looking like Hiroshima-Nagasaki after the floods. He has done nothing for the people."
STATE OF DEPRESSIONImage 2nd
Srinagar stays indoors after six in the evening, for there is nothing to do in the city. It's a place without multiplexes, cafes, fancy restaurants, pizza outlets, the small things that play a big role in a bustling city life. In the 1990s, militants forced the shutdown of all movie halls across Kashmir, sometimes by burning them. The ban on "un-Islamic" movie halls continues till this day under separatist and clerical pressure. There is no big industry in Kashmir, no corporate sector, and as a result, no development or jobs. Even traffic signals came to Srinagar only last year. To make matters worse, the floods have dealt tourism, Kashmir's mainstay, a body blow.
A state government job is the best thing that a young Kashmiri can hope for. But there is this belief that getting a state government job is next to impossible as such jobs are guided by corruption and nepotism. In Ganderbal's Sehpora, young village boys surround this correspondent while shouting "azaadi, azaadi. Go tell Mr Modi, we want azaadi." "Azaadi will bring us jobs," one of them shouts. "Nothing has changed here since 1947," complains a village elder. "The only industry we have here is basket weaving and farming." According to Hina Bhat, despair has driven 60% of Kashmiri boys and 40% girls towards drug addiction. It's a depressing state of affairs.
THE SYSTEM WORKS
Everyone knows who Shah Faesal is. Shah Faesal, IAS, topped the UPSC examination in 2010, the first Kashmiri to do so. "It was a watershed moment for us," says Malik Suhail, who has joined the J&K government after clearing the state civil services examinations. He is now studying for his IAS examination. "His success gave us hope. It brought back faith in the system. We realised we can trust the system, that there is transparency," says Athar Masoodi, a policeman who too is studying to be an IAS officer. Once there was a time when not more than 40-50 aspirants would appear for the Union Public Services Commission examination. The number has gone up to around 1,000 a year. Masoodi expects the number to touch 1,500 next year. Around 10-15 candidates are becoming IAS officers every year. Suhail, who says he is ready to be posted anywhere in India, feels that Kashmiri success in UPSC examination is good for integration, especially since "with the political situation improving, alienation has come down".