Wednesday key to decide who rules Jammu and Kashmir (Curtain Raiser)

December 22nd, 2008 - 5:49 pm ICT by IANS  

Srinagar/Jammu, Dec 22 (IANS) Twenty-one constituencies vote Wednesday in the seventh and final round of Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections amidst growing indications that the state is headed for a split verdict.Former chief minister and National Conference patron Farooq Abdullah will be among 392 candidates whose fate will be decided Wednesday when 1.6 million people will be eligible to exercise their franchise.

Eight constituencies in Srinagar, the urban hub of a dragging Muslim separatist campaign, and 13 constituencies in winter capital Jammu and the adjacent Samba district are set to elect their representatives.

Political activists say that no party is likely to get a majority in the 87-member house and that the winners in Wednesday’s 21 constituencies could determine who gets to rule Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Authorities have set up 1,872 polling stations — 999 in Jammu district, 191 in Samba and 682 in Srinagar district. All the Srinagar polling centres have been declared “hyper-sensitive” — official euphemism to mean they could see trouble or violence.

With 393 contestants, the final phase has the highest number of candidates since the staggered elections began Nov 17. They include 31 women.

The star contestant in Srinagar is Farooq Abdullah, who is fighting it out from two constituencies: Hazratbal and Sonawar.

There are 17 challengers against him in Hazratbal, but his main foes are Asiya Naqash of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Aga Sayed Mohsin of the Congress.

In the Shia dominated Zadibal constituency, Shahjahan Dar of PDP is seeking re-election and is challenged chiefly by Peer Afaq Ahmad of the National Conference.

In Idgah, the main battle is between Mubarak Ahmad Gul of the National Conference who is seeking re-election and Asifa Tariq Karra of PDP.

In Habba Kadal, once dominated by the Kashmiri Pandit community, Shameema Firdous of the National Conference is pitted against Abdul Hamid Bhat of PDP. But because of a good number of migrant voters, any of the Kashmiri Pandit candidates — Moti Lal Koul of Congress, Rattan Lal Bhan of Panthers Party, Sanjay Saraf of Lok Jan Shakti and the independent Raman Mattoo — could end up as a surprise winner. Mattoo won in 2002.

The difference between victory and defeat in the eight constituencies of Srinagar would depend on voter turnout.

Ever since the separatist campaign began, none of these constituencies has recorded even 10 percent voting in any election.

Even for Wednesday, the separatists have called for an election boycott and a protest march to the city centre Lal Chowk.

The maintenance of law and order in Srinagar is going to be the biggest challenge for the authorities.

Some sources say that instead of imposing restrictions in the city to prevent protests Wednesday, the authorities have worked out an elaborate plan of “sealing constituencies from outside”.

Jammu and Samba districts are also poised to see keen contests.

Three former ministers, Surjit Singh Salathia, Manjit Singh and Yashpal Kundal, are contesting from Samba. More ministers are in the fray in Jammu district.

Jammu has 210 contestants, including a record high of 34 in Jammu West constituency.

Ashok Khajuria, president of the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is contesting from Jammu East.

Despite the presence of many independents and smaller political parties, the main battle in Samba and Jammu is going to be between the Congress and the BJP.

In 2002, eight of these 13 seats were won by the Congress and one each by BJP, Panthers Party, PDP, Jammu State Morcha and the National Conference.

The BJP appears resurgent in both Jammu and Samba districts in the wake of the July-August mass protests against the cancellation of land allotment to the Hindu Amarnath shrine. The row led to the fall of the Congress-led government of then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.

The Congress campaign has been spearheaded by party chief Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

How well the BJP does in Jammu region would determine whether or not the party becomes a stakeholder in power sharing in Jammu and Kashmir when the results are announced Dec 28.

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