Women were seen singing and dancing as National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah reached Jammu and Kashmir’s Nagam village as part of his poll campaign. This was in complete contrast to the 2017 bypolls, when Farooq Abdullah contested from here and nobody would come out to root for him. The bypolls had recorded a dismal 7% voting, and was marred by widespread violence and civilian killings.
Srinagar is going to the polls for the second time in two years, and Farooq Abdullah is contesting yet again. The controversy over the special constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir has become the central issue in this election, after the BJP announced that it would scrap Articles 370 and 35A.
The sentiment around the state’s special constitutional position is so deep that women and men who have never been to school are now aware of the two constitutional provisions. This time, they are voting to safeguard their special status. “It’s a compulsion for us to vote. Farooq Abdullah has promised that he will not allow scrapping of 35A and 370,” said Zoona Begum.
Ms Begum and other women participants in the rally say they will be voting to save Kashmir and its identity.
Jammu and Kashmir sends just six members to parliament, and numerically, it’s not an important state for any national party. Yet, the Kashmir situation is dominating national discourse today and setting the agenda for various political parties. After the BJP declared in its manifesto that it will scrap Article 35A and Article 370, there was a strong reaction in Kashmir. People say they will defend the state’s special constitutional status and voting is a means to safeguard it.
The three-time Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister has made it the main issue of his campaign. Mr Abdullah spoke to NDTV during the campaign trail.
“As far as we are concerned, it is vital to understand on what basis we have joined the union. We have not merged, we have acceded and accession was based on promises that the government of that time made. Article 370, Article 35A,” said Mr Abdullah, adding that even former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had claimed that the “sky is the limit as far as autonomy is concerned”.
The National Conference chief said BJP was talking about scrapping Article 370 and turning Kashmir in a national security issue with the sole aim of winning the elections. “They want to win elections on Kashmir and attack on Pakistan. It’s because they fail on everything else. They made Kashmir one of their main issues because we are 70% Muslims,” he added.
Mr Abdullah is confident that people will come out to vote, and their participation in election rallies indicates the overall public mood. “People are attending election rallies in large numbers because they feel they have to protect the honour of this state,” he said.
The 81-year-old politician claimed that the National Conference has always fought for Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status. “We are not going to run away. We will sacrifice everything we have to protect the state,” he said, adding that he was grateful to the Congress for not fielding a candidate against him in Srinagar.
The National Conference believes Srinagar to be a safe seat for Farooq Abdullah, and that his opponents – the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference’s Irfan Ansari, Peoples Democratic Party’s Aga Mohsin and the BJP’s Khalid Jehangir – pose no danger to him.
At Balhama, on the outskirts of Srinagar, Irfan Ansari – a newcomer in politics – tells people that voting against Abdullah is the only way to bring about a change in Kashmir. Banking on Shia votes, Ansari has pockets of support in several parts of the constituency.
“I don’t know how easy or difficult it will be. It’s all up to the voters. We are seeing anger against the PDP and National Conference. Voters are not interested in voting for these parties,” said Mr Ansari.
He alleges that Farooq Abdullah has been winning due to poll boycotts and minimal voting. “Change stands a chance now. We want change, and the people want change. Farooq Abdullah has his party behind him, I have my people behind me. People make a difference, not the party,” he said.
The BJP’s participation in the Srinagar election, experts feel, is more symbolic than a serious contest. However, party candidate Khalid Jahangir is still trying to reach out to remote villages.
A song and dance event was organised in Khag area of Budgam district, and the colour of BJP banners has been changed from saffron to green in order to woo voters.
“It’s very difficult (to contest the elections in Kashmir). Not because of the BJP but because of mainstream politics and how people react to it in 2019,” said Mr Jahangir. “It’s a difficult job for us because we have been alienated from our own people. It’s because Kashmir’s mainstream politics has been shrinking for so many years, and we are not able to reach out to the younger generation.”
On discarding saffron from the BJP banner, he said: “I don’t see politics through the prism of colours but green is my favourite. Green is the colour of our national flag. Kashmiris love green. Green is the colour of peace and Kashmir requires peace.”
Srinagar constituency will vote on April 18, and it will be a test for political parties to bring people out to vote and leave the 2017 by-elections behind.
Get the latest election news, live updates and election schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on ndtv.com/elections. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram for updates from each of the 543 parliamentary seats for the 2019 Indian general elections.