Defying separatists’ calls for a boycott, Jammu and Kashmir came out in record numbers to vote in the first phase of assembly elections on a bitterly cold Tuesday.
The 71.28% turnout in 15 of the state’s 87 constituencies was more than a 5% jump over the 2008 figure of 64.9% while the Valley alone saw an 11% rise to record its highest ever turnout (also 71%).
Jharkhand, the other state where assembly polls are being held, defied a similar boycott threat by Maoists to log a 62% turnout as a resurgent BJP takes on the ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in a bid to offer stability after 14 years of coalition rule.
Deputy election commissioner Vinod Zutshi said in Delhi the J-K turnout was also higher than the 52.6% in the summer general elections while for Kashmir, it was the “highest since Independence”. He attributed it to adequate security and awareness among voters despite the recent floods.
Of the 15 seats, six were in Jammu, five in Kashmir and four in Ladakh, spread over seven districts. Both Kashmir and Jammu regions recorded 71% polling (Jammu was 69.7%in 2008) and Ladakh 68%, down 2% from the last time.
Sonawari recorded the highest polling at 80%, a big 20% jump, and Ganderbal the lowest at 52.97%, over 1% higher than last time. The Election Commission (EC) said the figures could be updated by Wednesday. Kishtwar, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had addressed a rally as part of an aggressive BJP campaign, saw a drop of nearly 6% when compared to the 2008 figure of 74%.
Except Sonawari, none of these constituencies were directly affected by the floods.
In the Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had won from Jammu and Kashmir, respectively, the turnout was 70% in the former and 31% in the Valley. The math, thus, could be hard to interpret now as even in areas in Kashmir where the summer turnout was extremely low, voters came out in large numbers.
The high turnout is also being seen as a result of massive mobilisation by parties. While both the PDP and BJP are vying to be the largest parties riding anti-incumbency, the National Conference (NC) and Congress, having broken their alliance after being in power for six years together, have galvanised resources to bring their traditional voters to the booth.
Incumbent chief minister and NC working president Omar Abdullah tweeted, “Good luck to all my colleagues whose electoral fates will be determined today... Reports of brisk polling in the Valley are very encouraging. Glad to hear turnout in Chenab valley seats also picking up.”
State Congress president Saifuddin Soz said, “We appreciate the enthusiasm of people who had suffered in the floods. We are hopeful of repeating our performance.”
But interpreting the heavy voting as “a reflection of people’s desire for change”, PDP spokesperson Nayeem Akhtar said, “When people want to punish someone, in a democracy, they come out in large numbers. Congress and NC will be the biggest losers.”
Even though the poll percentage in Jammu is close to the 2008 figure, consolidation and polarisation of votes along religious lines could benefit the BJP. “The 2008 elections are far behind. Now it’s a fight between PM Modi and the rest. People are going to vote either for or against him. The turnout shows people are rallying behind the PM, for change,” claimed BJP campaign committee member Hari Om.
In Jharkhand, where voting was held in 13 of 81 seats in six Maoist-affected districts, the 61.92% turnout was an improvement of 3.8% over the last assembly polls in 2009 (58.04%) and also up from 57.84% in the general elections.
“The first phase was challenging as most constituencies were Maoist-affected. Rise in voting percentage indicates greater turnout in the next phases too,” said state chief electoral officer PK Jajoria.
The next phase of polling in both states will be held on December 2.
(Inputs from HTC Delhi)