Facing the “stigma” of having brought BJP and RSS to Kashmir, it is perhaps the most difficult election campaign for PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti in South Kashmir’s Anantnag Lok Sabha seat which was considered a stronghold of the Muftis.
Mehbooba is pitched against Hasnain Masoodi of the National Conference (NC), GA Mir of Congress and Sofi Youssuf of the BJP in the Anantnag constituency which continues to be the epicentre of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
Having represented the Anantnag seat in the Lok Sabha twice, 2004 and 2014, Mehbooba is, during her current election campaign, spending a lot of time to criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah in an apparent bid to get rid of the “stigma” of having for the first time enabled the entry of BJP and RSS in the Kashmir valley.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah, while campaigning for the NC candidate Hasnain Masoodi, said that the current turmoil in Kashmir was due to PDP’s alliance with the BJP. He said that the PDP enjoyed power with the support of BJP for four years from 2014 to 2018 until the latter unceremoniously unseated her and thereafter Mehbooba started seeing all sins in the BJP.
J&K Congress chief GA Mir, while campaigning for himself, is also targeting Mehbooba for having brought miseries for Kashmiris by aligning with the BJP to form a coalition government.
Mehbooba, in her rallies, was stressing that her father Mufti Sayeed had formed the coalition government with the BJP with the hope that Modi, with the massive mandate he got in the 2014 elections, would carry forward the peace initiatives of Vajpayee with Pakistan. Peace cannot return to Kashmir unless the Modi government opens a dialogue with Pakistan, separatists and other stakeholders, she maintains.
Several top terrorists have been killed in encounters with the security forces in the four districts of Anantnag constituency. However, the elimination of Kashmiri poster-boy of terrorism, Burhan Wani in 2016, shook the foundations of the Mehbooba government as it triggered a violent agitation in Kashmir. This is the first election the PDP is facing in South Kashmir after that incident.
The BJP has, for the first time, fielded its candidate Sofi Youssuf in the volatile Anantnag constituency in the hope of getting votes of the migrant Kashmiri Pandits for whom separate polling booths would be set up in Delhi and Jammu.
The constituency covers four districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Sopore which are the hotbed of terrorism. Keeping this in view, the Election Commission has ordered 3-phase polling in the constituency so as to enable the presence of security forces in a large number in these areas. Polling in the Anantnag district will be held on 23 April, Kulgam district on 29 April and Shopian and Pulwama districts on 6 May.
As a precautionary measure, the Election Commission has also cut the polling time by 2 hours in the Anantnag constituency. Polling will be carried out from 7 am to 4 pm whereas in other five Lok Sabha constituencies of the state the polling time was 7 am to 6 pm.
The Anantnag seat has thrice been represented by the Muftis. Mufti Sayeed for the first time won the seat in 1998 on a Congress ticket. Thereafter, Mehbooba won the seat twice in 2004 and 2014 and resigned midway to become the chief minister of the PDP-BJP government following the death of her father Mufti Sayeed.
It is to be seen how the electorate reacts in this particular constituency to the poll-boycott call of the separatists during the first phase of polling on 23 April and that would set the trend for the two other phases.
The advantage for Mehbooba this time is that Mehbooba Beg, who won the seat in 2009 on an NC ticket, is now with the PDP. Beg had lost the election in 2014 by a margin of 65,000 votes to Mehbooba.
The by-election for the Anantnag and Srinagar Lok Sabha seats was ordered in 2017 when Farooq Abdullah won from Srinagar and the polling for Anantnag was abruptly cancelled due to security reasons.