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September 15, 1999


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The Rediff Election Specials/ Chindu Sreedharan in Srinagar

'Why should we vote? We are not part of India?'

Bikini and statistics, you have heard it said, are alike: they conceal more than they reveal.

Naturally, it is with moderate mistrust you take up the electoral statistics for Jammu and Kashmir that the authorities have provided. But, surprise, they are almost as revealing as a nude!

For instance, you begin to get the idea that 'the last general election of the millennium' -- that's what the state government has dubbed this poll -- is the tightest slap in the face of democracy since 1989.

You know of your own that the voter turnout in Jammu, Srinagar and Udhampur has been pretty unimpressive. Jammu somehow managed 47 per cent. Udhampur registered 35. And Srinagar, well, it had just 11.97 per cent. As for Ladakh, you have been told, the election there was a grand success: 82 per cent polling.

Not too bad for a trouble-torn state, you tell yourself, and promptly stumble on stats that has you rethinking: the polling percentage in five of the six JK constituencies has been steadily decreasing. And this, despite the claims that normalcy was round the corner and the democratic process was alive and kicking in the state.

So you have Srinagar dipping from 41 per cent (1996) to 30.06 (1998) to the current low, Jammu slipping from 54.73 per cent to 47 (though it had increased from 48.28 in 1996) and Udhampur from 53.43 (1996) to 51.46 (1998) to 35. From the 80.93 per cent of 1996, Ladakh slipped to 73.36 next election, but increased by nearly 10 per cent this time around.

Anantnag and Baramulla, for their part, slipped from 50.13 (1996) to 28.15 (1998) and 46.63 to 41.94 respectively. Worse, these constituencies are expected to poll even less this time around.

Which all brings you to that mandatory question: Why?

Bounce it on different people and you get different answers. But there sure is a common ground among these. Like, for one, Fear (with a capital F) and, two, disillusionment with the election process.

Here is what Chief Electoral Officer S V Bhave has to say on the trend: "There are three reasons to it. The first is election fatigue. Three elections in a row will have their effect. Then there is the consideration among the voters that elections are no use, that it will not help them in any way. And then, there is intimidation. There have been threats from militants (against voting)and they have had their effect."

Then how, you wonder, did the Ladakh constituency manage the high polling it did?

"Ladakh, you see," explains Bhave, "comprises Kargil and Leh districts. Kargil is Muslim-dominated and Leh, Buddhist-dominated. There is a lot of rivalry between the two districts and there are Muslim candidates and Buddhist candidates. It is this rivalry that brings people out to vote -- they want to ensure the victory of their candidates."

Also, Bhave admits, the Ladakh region has been completely untouched by militancy and, hence, there is no fear among voters.

Though the CEO refuses to acknowledge fear as the foremost reason for the low polling, National Conference candidate and Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah's son Omar blames just that. The troop-pullout during the Kargil conflict and the resultant vaccum that led to a spate of militant attacks in the valley is what saw the booths empty, he claims. Omar Abdullah, the MP from Srinagar, was the National Conference nominee this time too.

"There was a greater influx of militants. The counter-insuregency operations were handed back to the army only three days before the Srinagar election. And that is too short a time for them to do anything," he says.

"This low polling does not have anything to do with the All Party Hurriyat Conference's boycott call," he continues, "If that was so, how do you explain the low turnout in Jammu and Udhampur, where the APHC has no presence?"

Ask about allegations of largescale rigging in Srinagar and Omar Abdullah counters like a seasoned politician: "They (his main opponent, the People's Democratic Party) have been crying rigging, rigging for so long that it has lost all meaning."

That answer, however, finds little credence with anyone else. PDP candidate for Srinagar Mehbooba Sayeed, former Union home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's daughter, says only 0.1 per cent votes were polled in the constituency. The rest were bogus. The low turnout, she claims, was the manifestation of the people's disillusionment with the National Conference government which, by rigging the 1987 assembly poll, had fathered militancy in the valley.

This view has many takers. The political analyst whom you approach next belives the actual polling in Srinagar was less than 4 per cent. "Kashmiris have no interest in elections. They are convinced that no government will bring them any benefit," he says.

"Why bother? What difference will it make?" asks a youth, as if to confirm what the analyst said.

"I have not voted ever. Ninety per cent of the people here do not vote. They say there was 12 per cent polling. That is all bogus," another tells you. "Why should we vote?" he continues, "We are not part of India."

Your next target is the All Party Hurriyat Conference, the separatist organisation that has been calling for poll-boycott. Its spokesman Professor Abdul Ghani Bhatt come out with the expected:

"The people of Kashmir do not want to vote because they do not want any government to come to power. What they want is the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute."

What sort of polling, you try to find out, would the Baramulla and Anantnag constituencies, which goes to poll on September 18 and October 4 respectively, witness?

For once, almost everyone is of the same opinion. The polling, they chorus, will be low (unless the security personnel force people to vote). The recent spate of violence -- on Monday Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Dr Farooq Abdullah's younger brother escaped a murderous attempt on their lives -- has spread so much that even "20 per cent would be great polling"

Warns a political observer: "You can also expect a lot of rigging and booth capturing."

The Rediff Election Specials

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