Sixteen Jammu and Kashmir constituencies go to the polls on Tuesday when more than 1.3 million people are expected to cast their votes under a shadow of violence that hangs over the Valley, days after militant strikes rocked the state.
Security forces are on alert in the third phase of the five-phase elections after last week’s attacks that left 22 dead, including in the three districts of Pulwama, Baramulla and Budgam. Militants lobbed grenades and stormed an army installation in the run-up to the polls that will decide the fate of top leaders, including chief minister Omar Abdullah.
All eyes are on the National Conference (NC) leader’s newly chosen constituency, Beerwah, where he is pitted against the opposition Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) sitting legislator Muhammad Shafi Wani. Shia votes, consolidated by the NC over a period of time, are a key to victory in the constituency.
Three of Abdullah’s cabinet colleagues — the NC’s Abdul Rahim Rather, Congress’ Taj Mohiuddin and Democratic Party Nationalist’s Ghulam Hassan Mir — face an anti-incumbency test from Charar-e-Sharief, Uri and Tangmarg constituencies.
Buoyed by stunning successes in back-to-back polls, the BJP is also trying to expand its presence in the militancy-torn state, particularly the Muslim-majority Valley, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally on Monday. The party hopes it will win over independents and smaller groups to cobble together a government if it sweeps the Jammu region’s Hindu-majority seats.
However, the party may not succeed because of the absence of a prominent face. Both the NC and PDP appealed to voters who usually boycott elections, to cast their ballot this time to keep the BJP out.
The first two phases saw record turnouts of over 70%, as Kashmiris defied a separatist call for a poll boycott and bone-chilling cold to cast their vote in a bid to keep the BJP out of the Valley.
For the PDP, the challenge is to retain four seats in its stronghold, Pulwama, where it has fielded a new entrant, former banker Haseeb Drabu. The NC will try to increase its number in central Kashmir, but analysts say the party will lose because of an anti-incumbency wave, especially after the devastating September floods.
NC president Farooq Abdullah’s brother Mustafa Kamal, who moved from Srinagar, is contesting north Kashmir’s Tangmarg constituency. The Congress’ young face, Salman Soz, will take on the PDP’s Javaid Baig in Baramulla.
Analysts are watching Sopore, hometown of hardline Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Geelani, for poll percentage. Only 19% cast their votes in the 2008 election.