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Lok Sabha polls: Two small candidates make Baramulla tough to call this election season

Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) account for just a miniscule of Baramulla’s 1.2 million voters. But in a keen contest, every vote matters.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 05, 2014, 10.19 PM IST
BARAMULLA: In a dim-lit room bolted from inside, Muzaffar Hussain Baig and his aides are surrounding a laptop, trying different dongles for good Internet connectivity for video-conferencing. Finally one device connects the Peoples Democratic Party candidate from Baramulla to his audience nearly 350 km away: a group of nearly 150 Kashmiri Pandit migrants in Jammu. They exchange pleasantries and the screen goes blank. Now, electricity is gone. They wait.

In a keenly contested election, nobody is risking not making an effort. There are 18,125 listed voters in Baramulla among migrants Pandits. While all parties sent their special emissaries, Baig decided to do a video-conference too with them.

When electricity and the link return, Pandits shout a heap of complaints. They claim they are 40,000 voters but less than half are listed. “In certain cases, we have Dwarika Nath son of Abdul Gafar and in many cases a female voter is listed as a Muslim housewife,” one of them says.

After nearly 40 minutes of frequently interrupted interaction, Baig is shocked that none of the Pandits talked about their return.

“It indicated that various schemes aimed at getting them back home have failed to produce results,” he tells ET. “I initiated the talk on this and promised them a yearly reservation for jobs, better colonies back home and soft loans for starting business.”

Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) account for just a miniscule of Baramulla’s 1.2 million voters. But in a keen contest, every vote matters.

Baig, a former deputy chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, is pitted against ruling party National Conference’s incumbent Shareef ud Din Shariq. They are leaving no stone unturned to woo Baramulla’s 1.2 million voters.

With the entire LoC passing through its three districts, the constituency has 15 assembly segments and, involves various ethnic groups: Kashmiris, Gujjars, Pahadis and Sikhs.

Some of them have peculiar issues and rivalries. For more than 15 years, for example, Pahadis are fighting Gujjars over the ST status. Though Rajouri-Poonch in Jammu was the main battlefield for this issue, it has started afflicting Kashmir peripheries as well. The gaps are showing as people started using it for electoral politics.

People’s Conference (a neo-convert to unionist camp) has fielded a former Gujjar broadcaster Salamuddin Bajjad and for the first time.

In such a situation a potential representative requires everybody’s support, so Baig uses his language basket. In a Gujjar village, he speaks in Gujri and he picks a mix of Urdu and Kashmiri for a Kashmiri audience. With Sikhs he uses Punjabi laced Urdu. Originally belonged to a poor Pahadi family which had to sell a piece of land to manage the books and shoes for him when he topped the middles examination, Baig talks Pahadi when he is with his kin. For him, language is a huge connector.

Not getting his audience into secularism versus communalism combat, Baig has been raising governance issues. Why should Dr Farooq at more than 80 years of age control the state cricket association and usurp Rs 50 crore, otherwise required for creating sports infrastructure for youth? Why should Sheikh family attack the dignity of people of Kashmir by accusing them as ‘big thieves’? Why is it necessary to hang one Kashmiri for every generation of Sheikhs to rule: Dr Farooq hanged Maqbool Bhat and Omar sent Afzal Guru to gallows?

But the issue of reservation crops up almost everywhere he speaks. Baig offers his story in response. “Reservations are all right but it does not help always,” he tells a gathering in Khoma, deep in the jungles of Rafiabad. “It needs grit and courage to make it up the ladder.”

Baig tells them he used to walk 17 km barefoot to reach school. “It paid back,” said the man who did his masters from Harvard Law School and then become a corporate lawyer who was the state’s top tax payer.

All this don’t make Baig favourite to win the elections. He has unsuccessfully contested for Lok Sabha in past. His party lost the seat twice to NC. Right now the ruling coalition is in control of nine of 15 assembly segments and Baig’s PDP has only five. NC has represented this segment eight times and Congress thrice.

Besides Baig and Shariq, there are two others in the fray whose votes might decide the ultimate winner. These ‘kingmakers’ are People’s Conference’s Bajjad and independent AAP-type lawmaker Engineer Rashid.

Bajjad is taking a good share of Gujjar votes in addition to PC-influenced areas in Kupwara. Rashid is expected to retain his turf and may get some emotional support from certain peripheral belts.

Nobody knows which of the two small players eat into whose territory. Together they are expected to pocket 100,000 votes and what remains will have narrow margins for the two biggies. In certain belts, it might have a whisker difference especially because Congress pockets are unlikely to help NC.

Poll boycott pockets apart, results will heavily rely on the poll participation. The constituency has improved its voter turnout from 35.65% in 2004 to 41.84% in 2009.

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