As the first phase of the seven-phase Jammu and Kashmir poll begins on Monday, people in the Kashmir valley remain implacably opposed to it.
The opposition is even stronger than it was in 1996, when assembly polls were held after a nine-year hiatus, at the height of the insurgency in the state. Then, candidates and their supporters feared the militants, not the masses. Militants who had called for a poll boycott could – and did – strike anytime.
This time the fear is not so much that militants may strike - though that fear remains - but that the people themselves might boycott the meetings of candidates, or disrupt them.
During the 1996 campaign several meetings and rallies were held, albeit under heavy security. In the 2002 assembly poll run up, the situation had eased much more, enabling candidates to move quite freely everywhere, though the security remained. This time meetings are hardly being held at all.
When National Conference president Omar Abdullah launched his poll campaign in Sonawari in North Kashmir, loud protests and a complete shutdown of the town, greeted him. His People’s Democratic Party (PDP) opponent, Qazi Mohammad Afzal too has escaped the wrath of mobs of several occasions already.
Candidates have been reduced to going from door to door, seeking votes. “It is difficult campaigning this time because of the stridency of the poll boycott campaign,” admitted Omar.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti has been holed up in the Jammu districts of Rajouri and Poonch for over a week. “One can only campaign here,” she said. “There is hardly scope for normal campaigning in the valley.”
It is all goes back to the dispute over the 100 acres of government land that was first leased to the board that manages the Amarnath temple last July. Administrative bungling as the order to do so was passed, withdrawn and then passed again, gave separatist feeling in the valley an unprecedented fillip.
Outside the Valley campaigning is at its normal pitch, with a record number of candidates in the fray this time. There have been around 900 small, medium and big rallies already in the regions polling on Monday.