Despite the poll boycott call by separatists, Jammu and Kashmir is all set for the first phase of crucial assembly polls Monday in 10 constituencies that will see a record 102 candidates participating.
The boycott call could see a low turnout in the Kashmir Valley, but polling is expected to be high in Ladakh and Jammu's Poonch district.
The contituencies going to the polls are - Gurez, Bandipora and Sonawari in the Kashmir Valley, Leh, Nobra, Zanskar and Kargil in the Ladakh region and Surankote, Mendhar and Poonch-Haveli in the Jammu region.
Sonawari and Bandipora will see 22 and 19 candidates respectively in the fray. There are six candidates in Gurez, Poonch-Haveli has 13, Mendhar 12, Surankote 11, five each in Kargil, Leh and Zanskar and four in Nobra.
"We are expecting a fairly good voter turnout in the four assembly constituencies of the Ladakh region and the three constituencies in Jammu region," said a government official.
"Nobody will be allowed to interfere with the polling rights of the voters in the three constituencies in the Valley," he said, adding, "The voter turnout should be respectable there".
Despite the official assurances, the poll boycott campaign by the separatist leaders is likely to affect the voter turnout in Bandipora and Sonawari, while Gurez, which lies close to the Line of Control in north Kashmir, is unlikely to be influenced.
Campaigning by mainstream political parties and independent candidates had been low key in Bandipora and Sonawari, which have strong separatist pockets of influence.
According to Bashir Manzar, editor of a local daily, "The voter turnout in Sonawari, which lies close to Ganderbal, would definitely set the trend for the voter turnout in Ganderbal, which goes to the polls Nov 23 in the second phase." National Conference president Omar Abdullah is contesting for the prestigious Ganderbal seat.
The separatist leaders have called for a march to Bandipora and Sonawari Nov 17 as part of their poll boycott programme.
"We have worked out a strategy to isolate the separatist leaders so that they do not succeed in preventing the voters from exercising their democratic right to vote. But we shall also not force an unwilling voter to vote," said B. Srinivas, inspector general of police (Kashmir zone).
Although there are many mainstream political parties like the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the National Conference, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Panthers Party and many independents in the fray in Bandipora, Gurez and Sonawari, the main battle is going to be between the National Conference, the PDP and the influential independents.
In the Ladakh region, Kargil and Zanskar, which have sizeable Muslim voters, could be a safe bet for the National Conference candidates, while Nobra and Leh would throw up Buddhist candidates as the likely winners. Leh, Nobra and Kargil were won by Independent candidates in the 2002 polls, while in Zanskar the National Conference was victorious.
In Bandipora, National Conference candidate Ghulam Rasool Mir is pitted against Nizamuddin Bhat of the PDP and Usman Majid of the Awami League. Going by the undercurrent in Bandipora, Usman Majid, who won the elections there in 2002, poses a serious challenge to the other two main candidates.
In Sonawari, National Conference's sitting legislator Muhammad Akbar Lone faces a serious challenge from Yasir Reshi of the PDP and also a powerful independent Shia candidate, Abid Ansari, who is the younger brother of Molvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari, a senior Shia leader of the valley.
In Gurez, the National Conference candidate, Nazir Ahmed Gurezi is seeking re-election. He is pitted against Fakir Muhammad of the Congress.
In Mendhar, Surankote and Poonch-Haveli, the Congress, the National Conference and the BJP are pitted strongly against one another. Mendhar and Poonch-Haveli were won by the National Conference in the last elections.
"Although the Congress has an edge in the Poonch-Haveli constituency, Surankote and Mendhar could throw up surprises this time," said Harbans Nagokay, editor of a vernacular newspaper in Jammu city.
B.R. Sharma, the state chief electoral officer, said all preparations were in place for the polls.
"The 10 constituencies will have 1,064 polling stations and shall be manned by over 5,000 officials," a poll official told IANS here.
There are 58,073 voters in Kargil, 62,533 in Leh, 20,044 in Zanskar, 11,863 in Nobra, 84,726 in Sonawari, 86,306 in Bandipora, 15,330 in Gurez, 84,969 in Surankote, 77,853 in Mendhar and 96,758 voters in Poonch-Haveli, the official said.
In Nobra, a polling station has been set up for just 14 voters (seven male and seven female) and 24 polling staff, including security men, have been deployed for this station.
Polling in Jammu and Kashmir is being held in seven phases on Nov 17, 23, 30 and Dec 7, 13, 17 and 24.