Anantnag by-poll: Mehbooba’s popularity on test

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Though Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is favourite to win the Anantnag bypoll, the low turnout hasn’t reflected well on her government. The voting on Wednesday started tentatively, picking up marginally as the day progressed, reaching 28 percent by 3 pm. And by 6 pm, the final turnout was to just 33.09 percent,  way short of the expectation. More so, with Chief Minister who also hails from the district contesting for the seat. What explains this apathy? Does it reveal some decline in Mehbooba’s popularity. It could mean both and more. On its face, the reasons for the low-turnout are not far to seek. Over the past two years, South Kashmir has emerged as the new militant hub of the Valley. More than two-third of the hundred plus militants operating in the state hail from parts of the South, particularly Tral, Shopian and Pulwama, the neighbouring areas of the district Anantng.  And whenever a militant dies in an encounter, thousands pour for his funeral prayers shouting anti-India and pro-Kashmir liberation slogans. In some cases villages clash with one another to offer the burial place for the slain militant.

Besides, both Hurriyat and the militant groups had urged people to boycott the by-poll as a proof that they were against India’s rule in Kashmir and “reposed no trust in India’s electoral system”. But it is also true that in election after election, people haven’t generally gone by the advice of the separatists and often participated overwhelmingly. Last election which gave PDP its largest mandate in Valley saw a massive participation, particularly in rural areas. 

Though Anantnag by-poll is a one-constituency poll, it by no means detracts from its significance. Being the Chief Minister of the state, the outcome of the by-poll is important for Mehbooba, It will be a fresh indicator of her popularity in Valley.  More so, in case of Mehbooba, arguably the state’s only grassroots based mainstream leader who is almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing her party to where it is now.  And she did this by spinning a quasi-separatist political narrative and backing it up by an aggressive street mobilization.  But the alliance with BJP has severely hit the  PDP’s political standing.  When her father passed away in January, less than thousand people addressed his funeral, a development that is seen to have contributed to Mehbooba’s decision to refuse to take over as Chief Minister for three months. 

Now that the turnout in Anantnag has been unexpectedly low, which shows certain detachment from the poll process by the people, the margin of Mehbooba’s victory will certainly be a measurement of the people’s confidence in CM.  In the last election her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had won by a slim margin of 6000 votes. A similar or lesser margin will certainly be a troubling sign for Mehbooba and in some ways a vote of no-confidence in her coalition with BJP.  However, short of losing the by-poll, Anantnag outcome will not make a big difference to Mehbooba’s political standing. If all goes well, she still has five years in the government.   And five years is a very very long time in politics. A marginally better governance than her National Conference predecessor will certainly make her a political force to reckon with in the next Assembly election. 

 

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