The extraordinarily high turnout of 68.9 per cent in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir elections is a reflection of the deep roots that democratic, competitive politics has taken in the state, despite surface appearances to the contrary.
The response of voters has confounded all – from political parties to separatists to political analysts. In the backdrop of the mass upsurge in Kashmir in recent months against the Indian state, the loud cries of azaadi and the repeated appeals from separatists like the All Party Hurriyat Conference to boycott the polls, the voting percentage seems nothing short of miraculous.
The main reason for this seismic shift was the lack of unanimity among Kashmiris themselves over responding to the call for boycott. Once supporters of a particular candidate came out to vote – be it in small numbers – supporters of other candidates realized they would be conceding a walkover to this candidate by staying away. Thus they too descended on the polling booths, leading to a cascade effect which ensured very high polling.
Thus in Bandipora which saw 57 per cent polling against 31 per cent in the 2002 elections, supporters of the sitting independent MLA Usman Majid, began casting their votes. “Supporters of both the National Conference candidate and the People’s Democratic Party candidate understood that if they had to keep Majid from winning a second term, the only thing to do was to come out and vote against him,” said a local resident.
In Sonawari constituency, where 59.6 per cent voted – against 56 per cent in 2002 – it was the sight of Shias disregarding the boycott call and voting for a Shia independent, Abid Ansari – brother of PDP vice president Iftikhar Hussain Ansari – that brought the Sunnis too willy nilly to the voting booths. They didn’t want the Shia candidate to win without putting up a fight.
Bandipora and Sonawari, in the heart of the Kashmir valley, were the two seats – of the 10 that went to the polls on Monday in the first phase – where a near boycott was expected. Voting in the other eight seats – mostly in Ladakh and Poonch – was expected anyway, since these regions have never seen eye to eye with the Kashmiri separatists. Ladakh is largely Buddhist, while Poonch, despite its 80 per cent Muslim population, comprises Gujjars who do not identify with the Valley Muslims.
“Definitely we are surprised by the high turnout in Bandipora,” separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq conceded over telephone to HT. “People in rural areas do seem more concerned about issues like bijli, sadak, pani (power, roads and water) and thus came out to vote."