This ‘VIP constituency’ is the most talked about of the six Lok Sabha seats in Jammu and Kashmir, thanks to the Abdullahs.
Farooq Abdullah, the National Conference’s (NC’s) charismatic president, who had then taken political ‘sanyas’ as he was eyeing the post of India’s Vice-President, was projected in 2009 as the chief ministerial candidate to revive the party’s flagging fortunes. While the NC took over the reins of the state, with son Omar as the CM, Farooq himself shifted to the Centre after winning the Lok Sabha seat.
Addressing a party rally to mark the birth anniversary of NC founder and Farooq’s father Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in Hazratbal in December last year, the former CM had said that he would contest from Srinagar in the forthcoming general elections.
“Till I am alive, I will fight the polls from Srinagar,” the senior Abdullah had said.
However, retaining the seat doesn’t seem to be a cakewalk. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is making inroads, picking on Farooq’s ‘absence’ from Srinagar and the party’s “dismal” performance on the development front.
“The problems regarding bijli, sadak and paani (electricity, roads and water) are getting worse in Srinagar. The constituency is the face of Kashmir, give us one project which we can attribute to the Abdullahs,” says PDP spokesman Nayeem Akhtar.
‘Disconnect’ with voters
Though the district authorities say Farooq has taken keen interest in the development of the constituency and allocated a major part of his MPLAD (local area development) fund for health and education projects, the common man feels a certain ‘disconnect’ as Farooq was busy handling the union ministry of new and renewed able energy.
“I have never seen him in the old city. Has he seen the condition of roads here? Even otherwise, when young boys were being killed in 2010 in this area, he was speaking from Delhi. Tell me one family he has visited. We gave him votes, what has he given us?” asked Mohammad Maqbool, a shopkeeper in the old city.
The authorities say Farooq has spent his funds judiciously. “He has been very vocal in district development board meetings. Be it good transport or starting Srinagar Metro, Mr Abdullah has always spoken about people’s grievances,” said a senior official.
“The fact that he has given money mostly to colleges and hospitals has not gone down well with his party colleagues,” the official added.
His NC colleagues agree that more needs to be done. “Srinagar is face of the state. It has a 5,000-year-old history. A lot has been done and a lot needs to be done here. Srinagar was the place which faced the brunt of 25 years of militancy. We had to start from scratch,” said senior NC leader Ali Mohammad Sagar.
His rivals claim the constituency has never got its due. "The seat, which since 1983 was mostly represented by the Abdullah family, has remained mostly underdeveloped," the PDP spokesman said. "The old city, which is one of the oldest existing cities in this part of the world and was declared ‘threatened’ by international agencies, has received no support from the Abdullahs. It could have been marketed as a brand but it has turned into ruins," Nayeem Akhtar added.
While the NC veteran has been the chief minister for three spells between 1982 and 2002, the party hopes Farooq’s charismatic personality will work wonders again.
Farooq’s volatile, unconventional persona has always drawn criticism. Known to lose his temper and his knack for controversial statements have stirred up trouble on several occasions. In fact, his personality had even been a poll plank for the PDP in the last assembly elections.
Farooq also had the dubious distinction of figuring on the list of candidates Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wanted to take on in the Lok Sabha polls. Farooq figured very high on Kejriwal’s list of ‘corrupt’ leaders.
“I am happy that my name figured on the list. I will go to court. I will ask him (Kejriwal) also,” he had told reporters when asked to comment on the controversial list.
As a man who inspires either intense loyalty or utter contempt, he was often at the centre of debates about the NC. But Farooq, of course, has his fans and his son’s “dismal performance in certain respects” in recent years has shown him in a better light. “Even if he says all sort of things, people still feel he is more connected to Kashmiris than his son. The son is totally disconnected,” said an NC leader who did not want to be named.
The party’s old guard swears by him and has lend support to Omar only after an assurance from Farooq. In recent times, Farooq has been coming out in support of his son and building bridges between dissenting voices within the party or making deals with the Congress high command at the Centre.
Part 10 of 34:
Rajan Sushant, Kangra