Srinagar: Me'raj Khurshid Malik is just 25. But he appears even younger. The impish boyish look is yet to leave his face. So, it takes some time to sink in that he is an independent candidate for the by-poll for Srinagar parliamentary constituency, up against the heavyweight like the NC President and three time J&K Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah.
I know I am a kid in politics. But I have the confidence to take him (Abdullah) on, Malik says cockily.
Every morning, Malik sets out from his home at Srinagars Hydepora to visit the outlying areas of Srinagar parliamentary constituency like Faqir Gujri, Gund Hassipora and Beerwah to meet the residents there. I have my contacts and well-wishers who fix up the meetings and then I go, he says. I dont have the resources to hold large public meetings. So I go door to door to convince people to vote for me.
Malik has spent most of his life so far outside the Valley. He has done his early studies at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Jammu, then moving on to pursue an engineering course at a University in Chandigarh. For some years Malik has been based in Bangalore where he landed a job at Microsoft.
But I quit it to return to Kashmir to fight the election, says Malik.
And he again sets out a disproportionately bigger motivation for his decision to contest: I have joined politics in deference to a collective urge for a leadership other than provided by NC and PDP who have given us nothing but death and suffering.
However, in Valley, Maliks political pitch will struggle to be heard, let alone find a resonance. In fact, fewer people beyond his tiny group of supporters know or will care to know that he is also contesting. The importance of his candidature lies in its being a daring exception to the dominant political climate.
In a place where even joining IAS has become a taboo for a large section of youth and the militants are worshipped as heroes, a youths plunge into politics at an election time is apt to be seen as an exercise in collaboration with the state than a bid to fight for the cause of people.
So, it hardly matters what Malik says, he now belongs to the discredited side of the Valleys entrenched political binary pro-establishment versus secessionist politics which abjures electoral politics.
But at the same time, this troubled context makes him stand out and draw some attention amid an electoral battle that has little space for his candidature. The contest is entirely between the NC stalwart Abdullah and the PDPs lesser known Nazir Ahmad Khan.
The volatile Anantnag is another constituency where by-poll is being held. The contest there is between the Chief Minister Mehbooba Muftis brother Tasaduq Mufti and the state Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir.
Anantnag seat had fallen vacant after Mehbooba, who represented the constituency, resigned to take over as the J&K Chief Minister following her father Mufti Sayeeds demise on January 7, 2016. And the then PDP leader Tariq Hameed Karra who represented Srinagar in Lok Sabha resigned during the unrest last year in protest against the killings and blindings of protesters. Karra has now joined Congress.
The by-poll assumes significance more in the light of the last years turmoil than for its own sake. For one, it will be a sort of referendum on the popularity of PDP-BJP coalition, particularly that of PDP blamed for the excesses last year.
But fundamentally, the by-poll will be about the degree of participation of people in the voting. In past, the extended unrests have often been followed by an overwhelming participation in the polls, in defiance of the boycott call from the separatists. The 2008 Amarnath land row which led to 60 killings was followed immediately by a record polling, a turn of events which had stunned Hurriyat, then riding on a heightened separatist sentiment. A similar situation had unfolded following the 2009 unrest over the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian.
Such participation has often proved demoralizing for the separatist cause as people vote in violation of the Hurriyat call for boycott and contrary the reigning sentiment of the time.
Will this history be replicated in the upcoming by-poll? Not even the diehard votaries of the poll boycott are willing to bet.
I think people will stay away from the polls, says Rafiq Ahmad Khan, an Azadi supporter in downtown city. But then who knows what will happen. We can again end up having bumper voting on the polling day.
But in the end, the boycott or absence of it will make a little difference to the electoral process. At best, the observation of boycott will lead to a reduced participation in the polls which can even distort the outcome.
This is a prospect that raises the hope of the unpopular parties including that of the independents like Malik. The result depends on which candidates supporters brave the widespread public hostility to cast their vote. Or which candidate has the means to ferry his supporters to the polling booth.
And this is why Malik prefers to visit the far-flung areas inhabited by ethnic minorities like Gujjars and Bakerwals which vote than the urban areas or the nearby villages which are likely to boycott.
I am not a public figure. I am not Farooq Abdullah, says Malik. But I have full faith, I will win. If my message is spread that here is a young man who wants to change the political system, then I will certainly win.
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