Indian democracy has achieved another breakthrough in Jammu and Kashmir. Senior separatist leader Sajad Lone has decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections.
He is the first separatist leader of his stature to join the democratic process since the outbreak of militancy over two decades ago.
Separatists in Jammu and Kashmir have previously rejected the democratic process. But now, the younger son of slain separatist leader and chairman of the People's Conference Abdul Gani Lone is garnering support for his election bid from Baramullah constituency in north Kashmir.
Gulam Mohiuddin Sofi, a former minister and a confidant of Sajad's father, is come out in support of Sajad Lone.
Sofi won an election from Handwara assembly constituency in 2002 and later became a minister in the coalition government of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.
But he lost to the National Conference candidate Chowdhary Muhammad Ramzan in Handwara in the December 2008 assembly elections.
"Sajad Lone has a lot of goodwill and support, especially in Kupwara district," said a political analyst who did not want to be identified by name because of obvious risks.
So why did Sajad Lone's sister Shabnum, who fought as an independent from Kupwara assembly constituency last year, got defeated by the National Conference? Many feel that this happened because Shabnum never enjoyed the support of the People's Conference.
Though Sajad Lone is yet to formally announce his decision, mainstream parties like the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have started looking at him as a serious contender.
The PDP has decided to field a senior leader and former minister, Muhammad Dilawar Mir, from Baramullah.
Mir lost the December elections to National Conference but is still seen as a formidable candidate.
Of the six assembly seats in the Baramullah Lok Sabha constituency, the National Conference won Sopore and Rafiabad while the Congress won the Uri seat. The Gulmarg seat went to former minister Ghulam Hassan Mir, who had fought as an independent.
"The so-called Sajad factor is likely to become evident during the Lok Sabha elections. This could be a serious challenge to both the National Conference and PDP," said Qaramat Qayoom, a resident of Baramullah town.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Baramullah seat was won by Abdul Rashid Shaheen of the National Conference.
Though the National Conference is yet to announce its candidate for Baramullah, insiders suggest at least three names are doing the rounds.
They include Shaheen and Sharief-ud-Din Shariq.
"The choice would have to be made keeping in view the fact that both Sajad Lone and the PDP would pose a challenge to our candidate," said a senior National Conference leader here.
More than who wins and loses the seat, the participation of a senior separatist leader in the poll process will mean that Indian democracy has already won. After that, political observers will keenly watch the extent to which the Sajad factor hurts the prospects of the major parties.