In Bijbehara, deserted polling booths and 'disinterested' voters

Late Tuesday afternoon, Peoples Democratic Party President and its candidate for southern Kashmir seat Mehbooba Mufti walked out of the polling booth in Bijbehara, exuding confidence that she had fared better in the contest.

“We are confident to secure a win. My father has left a legacy in the form of workers and I trust them. They are my hope,” Mehbooba said after casting her ballot at around 3pm.

Inside, a polling officer said, only 139 out of the total 4400 registered votes had been cast in six booths that were housed in a government building. The polling agents of various political parties claimed a share of the total votes polled.

In Mehbooba’s own booth, only 29 of 345 people had walked in to exercise their electoral right.

This low voting didn’t surprise many, nor was it limited to this centre only. Across Bijbehara, the home town of Mehbooba, and Anantnag Assembly constituency, the voting percentage was 2.75 per cent: 2.04 per cent in Bijbehara and 3.47 in Anantnag.

BOOTH NO. 34

Election to Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, spread over four districts—Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama—is being conducted in three phases. This is unprecedented in electoral history of any state. The decision was taken after the Election Commission of India (ECI) first rescheduled and then altogether cancelled by-polls to the seat which had remained vacant for almost three years since April 2016.

Today was the first phase of the election, in which Anantnag district comprising six Assembly segments went to polls. In Bijbehara, constituency Booth No. 34 was the centre of attention since early morning. It had been set up for voters from Baba Mohalla, a locality where Muftis and their relatives have lived for decades.

Fighting the most crucial electoral battle of her political career, the PDP President would have normally counted on support from the electorate there. Her workers were upbeat in the morning. But as the day wore on, excitement faded into disappointment and ultimately the day ended with ugly scenes, as polling agents of rival parties, PDP, National Conference and Congress accused each other of indulging in bogus voting.

At one point, the verbal brawl turned into a physical fight and the paramilitary CRPF and police had to intervene to stop situation from going out of control.

“They (PDP) had got some burqa-clad women to cast bogus votes. When we objected they raised hue and cry,” alleged NC’s polling agent Ghulam Hassan. The PDP agent accused the NC of indulging in bogus voting.

Abdul Rashid, Assistant Returning Officer at the center, said he has ordered for a report from his subordinate over the incident.

The polling time had been cut by two hours amid large deployment of the security forces. At the closure of the voting, the total number of votes cast at the Booth No 34 was 32, of total 345 votes.

A mere 167 people, out of the registered 4354 voters, had voted in six polling booths.

“We are not going to gain anything out of boycott. This hasn’t achieved us anything in the past,” said an elderly man after casting his vote.

Making his political affiliations public he said he voted for Mehbooba. “She suffered a lot for us. We should give her another chance,” he said.

But a youth, Hilal Ahmad, who said he shifted his loyalties from PDP to NC ahead of elections, countered the elderly man who was wearing a skull-cap.

“Who brought BJP to Kashmir? Have you forgotten toffee and milk remark? Leave aside the larger issues. My family had been loyal to PDP. I along with local youth managed the biggest rally for Mehbooba Mufti in 2014 elections in Bijbehara. But what did I get. An FIR and a hollow promise of job,” he said.

ACROSS THE CONSTITUENCY

Since 1996, Muftis and PDP have never lost the Assembly segment of Bijbehara. In the recent elections, supporters and workers of PDP have come out to vote for the party. This time, the enthusiasm was missing among the PDP workers too across the constituency.

Mehbooba is facing challenge from Congress’ GA Mir and NC’s Hasnain Masoodi, a retired judge. While Congress doesn’t have support base in Bijbehara, NC has pockets of influence. In Veeri, one of several villages in the constituency, the polling agents talked about a close fight between PDP’s AR Veeri and NC’s Bashir Ahmad Veeri.

An old man who cast his vote at a polling booth there proudly showed indelible ink mark on his finger. “Why should I hide it? I have never missed to cast my vote,” he said.

Outside many polling booths, people, mostly the elderly, attributed this disinterest to the “blunder committed by the PDP of shaking hands with BJP”.

“There is also anger among people that the party has done nothing for its workers who stood by it in testing times,” said a man in his mid 40s outside the polling booth in Saraf Mohalla. Only 25 of the total 5980 votes were cast at four booths set up inside a polling station there.

IN ANANTNAG, MISSING POLLING AGENTS AND DESERTED BOOTHS

Most of the voting centres in Anantnag were like that in Bijbehara.

“Why should we vote and for whom shall we vote. Do they deserve out vote?” said Mohammad Subhan, who was coming out of a lane opposite to a polling booth in Wanihama, Dialgam. Of the 1035 voters registered there, none had turned up till late afternoon.

As the conversation went on, the man opened up. “I will tell you the truth. I was a staunch voter of PDP. But look what happened in 2016,” said Subhan. According to him only PDP had a support base in the village. “But today things are evident,” he said.

Much to the surprise of voters, even the polling agents of parties were missing at several booths in the Anantnag constituency. In six polling booths set up inside Government Women’s College Anantnag, PDP had a polling agent in only one booth. The NC had none.

“I don’t know the reason,” the only PDP polling agent told me about missing party agents in other booths.

Even BJP had managed to get polling agents for the maximum number of booths – some of them were bused from Srinagar and Pulwama. Of the more than 4350 votes, only 37 votes had been polled in the afternoon.

At several booths across the constituency, people talked about Congress securing the lead, crediting the former candidate for the constituency Hilal Shah for the “turnaround”.

“He has been concentrating on the constituency and has nurtured several pockets like Khanbal in Anantnag town and villages like Seepan, Batpora, Nandpora, Pushwara, Munward, Behramsha Kehreebal and Rambirpora,” said a youth.

The constituency was represented by Mehbooba in the last Assembly and the party has won three consecutive state elections since 2008.

“Don’t expect any more votes here. Whosoever had to vote did in the morning,” said a youth who sat with his friends outside the polling booth on the pavement.

“If such is the scenario (about low voting in Anantnag) what will be the situation in Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian,” he said.

DESERTED POLLING BOOTHS

A village in Bijbehara, Mahand, along the Bijbehara-Pahalgam road, witnessed zero voting in the third consecutive election. None of the registered 2000 voters turned up.

But Mahand wasn’t the only polling booth that scored zero. In three polling booths of Kanalwaen village, none of the 3000 registered voters came out to vote.

Other villages where nobody turned up at the booths include Hadigam, Budroo K-Kalan, Bewoora, Sadkipora, Kaato, Hugam, and Marhama, all in Bijbehara.

A source said at least 42 villages in Bijbehara witnessed zero percent voting while nine booths in Anantnag including Pethbug, Wanihama-A & B, Cheedipora, Hanji, Dantar, Dialgam-A & B and Kandipora recorded zero percent voting.