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Mehbooba's Appeal Seems Intact

May 10, 2024 13:04 IST
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'Whether she is in power or not, she always makes it a point to visit us. This is her best quality as a leader.'

IMAGE: Mehbooba Mufti acknowledges the crowds during an election roadshow in Anantnag-Rajouri. Photographs: Umar Ganie for

One word describes the election mood in Kashmir. Thanda (cold).

But when Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti hits the road, the thanda mood is transformed and thousands follow her to hear what she is saying.

Many youngsters are seen wearing the PDP bandana, and some of them climb on jeep tops to wave PDP flags to show solidarity with her.

As we leave her home in Srinagar with a group of supporters to reach our first destination, Awantipora in Anantnag district, we cross the Srinagar-Pulwama highway where 40 Central Reserve Police Force soldiers were martyred in February 2019.

To one's surprise there is no memorial at the spot where 40 jawans were martyred; the only sign is that there is heavy security in the area.

After passing the Srinagar-Pulwama highway, Mehbooba stops the convoy at Awantipora and gets down to make a speech where around 5,000 people assemble to hear her.

"Respond to New Delhi for its action in 2019 by voting on May 25," Mehbooba tells the voters amidst cheers, alluding to the Modi government's decision to revoke Article 370 five years ago.

Posters show her with the PDP's Srinagar candidate Waheed Ur Rehman Para alongside poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's verse: 'Bol ki lab azaad hain tere, bol zaban ab tak teri hai'.

Mehbooba is contesting from Anantnag-Rajouri where elections were to be held on May 7 but were postponed to May 25.

The Election Commission of India heeded the requests of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Democratic Progressive Azad Party, the Apni Party and the People's Conference which argued that snowfall and landslides had blocked the Mughal road connecting Anantnag and Rajouri, making campaigning difficult.

Though Mehbooba opposed the move, the Election Commission rescheduled the election for May 25.

Anantnag, which comprises Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag districts, has 16 assembly constituencies.

Mehbooba is contesting against the Apni Party's Zafar Minhas and National Conference leader Altaf Ahmed. The BJP supports the Apni Party candidate.

IMAGE: The PDP motorcade winds its way through Tral.

The belief in her opponents is that there is a section of Kashmiris who blame her for the alliance with the BJP that ultimately led to the revocation of Article 370.

But on the ground her popularity seems to be intact in Anantnag.

Riyaz Dar, a first time voter and a supporter of Mehbooba, says, "I have seen Mehbooba coming to our hometown since childhood. Whether she is in power or not, she always makes it a point to visit us. This is her best quality as a leader. I don't see this in other Kashmiri political leaders."

After a short speech Mehbooba's convoy leaves for Tral.

'I am youth. I am PDP' posters greet Mehbooba as her convoy passes among Kashmiris eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of her.

The convoy passes the 8th century Martand temple at high speed before reaching Tral.

When I walk around to check the mood of voters I only encounter silence.

"No one will speak to you on politics," says one shopkeeper. "This is Tral."

After I try to speak to a dozen more people, I realise the shopkeeper is right.

Tral is where the Hizbul Mujahideen's poster boy Burhan Wani operated from. He was the first Kashmiri terrorist to use social media before he was slain by the Indian Army in July 2016. His death led to massive protests across Kashmir.

Tral became synonymous with Wani and I guess outsiders like me with questions are unwelcome here.

Later, Mehbooba tells me why. "Nobody speaks in Tral because they feel if they speak they will be arrested. The situation is so bad that even if you post something on social media about power cuts the police will land at your house and tell you to remove the post or get ready to be booked under the Public Safety Act. This is the kind of surveillance happening here."

IMAGE: Mehbooba recites the fatiha along with her supporters during the roadshow.

Mehbooba asks the people of Tral not to fear as they have been wrongly labelled for years.

"Our children studying in other parts of the country become targets because of their identity, because of where they belong. We sell our lands, send our children to get good education and they end up being targeted," Mehbooba says in her speech.

"The people of Tral epitomise resilience and patience. Salute to the people of Tral for their unwavering support," she says, winding up her speech.

The campaign trail comes to a sudden end because the authorities have not granted her permission to visit other places on her schedule.

"I wanted to go to many places, but the administration did not give me permission. I don't know why, Mehbooba tells reporters before ending her roadshow.

"I wanted to campaign more, but unfortunately cannot."

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