All eyes on Sajjad Lone (Poll Curtainraiser - Jammu and Kashmir)

May 12th, 2009 - 3:22 pm ICT by IANS  

Srinagar, May 12 (IANS) As the constituencies of Baramulla and Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir go to the polls in the last phase Wednesday, all eyes are on separatist leader Sajjad Gani Lone, the surprise entrant in the poll ring.
Although there are 13 candidates in the fray in the north Kashmir Lok Sabha constituency of Baramulla, the main contest is between the ruling National Conference (NC) candidate Sharief-ud-Din Sharriq, Muhammad Dilawar Mir of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Lone of the People’s Conference.

Lone, the son of People’s Conference founder Abdul Gani Lone who was slain in 2003 by unidentified assailants, is the first separatist in Kashmir to contest the polls since a revolt broke out in Kashmir in 1989.

Although Lone terms his move “a change of strategy and not any change of ideology”, the triangular contest in Baramulla is being keenly watched by everyone.

“I shall carry the voice of the Kashmiri people to the Indian parliament,” Lone has been telling voters in Kupwara and Baramulla districts where his road shows and rallies have been well attended.

People listened keenly to Lone, who hails from the border district of Kupwara. He used to speak of elections as “a futile exercise” until he too decided to throw his hat into the poll ring.

His entry has come as challenge of sorts to both the NC and the PDP who had otherwise been the arch rivals in this constituency.

Sharief-ud-Din Shariq of the NC had contested the December 2008 assembly elections from the Langate constituency, but was defeated by an independent candidate, Engineer Rashid, who was largely believed to have joined the poll with Lone’s blessings.

The PDP candidate, Muhammad Dilawar Mir, was defeated in the December 2008 assembly elections from his Rafiabad home constituency by Zahoor Ahmad of the NC.

Out of the 15 assembly segments in this constituency, the PDP had won five seats, the Congress one, the NC seven and independents two.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Baramulla recorded 35.66 percent poll percentage, which was the highest among the three constituencies of Srinagar, Anantnag and Baramulla in the Kashmir Valley.

Poll authorities have set up 1,470 polling booths for 1,054,086 voters including 549,778 men and 504,308 women in Baramulla where 15 assembly segments spread over the three districts of Baramulla, Kupwara and Bandipora will go to the polls Wednesday.

How much the separatist poll boycott call would effect the voter turnout in the constituency would also determine the fate of the candidates.

The NC-Congress alliance leaders have been aggressively campaigning for their party with star campaigners like Farooq Abdullah, his son and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Water Resources Minister Saif-ud-Din Soz throwing their weight in favour of the NC candidate.

Besides employment, development and tourism, devolution of more powers from the Centre to the state and better ties between India and Pakistan have dominated the poll campaign of both the NC and the PDP in this constituency.

In the cold desert region of the Ladakh Lok Sabha constituency, authorities have set up 476 polling booths for 152,391 voters including 77,899 men and 74,492 women.

The constituency is spread over the two districts of Leh and Kargil where four assembly segments of Kargil, Zanskar, Nobra and Leh would be voting to choose between Congress candidate P. Namgyal and the powerful independent candidate Ghulam Hassan Khan.

The PDP has not fielded any candidate for this Lok Sabha seat.

Ladakh has always remained polarised between the Buddhist and the Muslim voters.

In the December 2008 assembly elections, the NC had won the Kargil and Zanskar seat while the Congress won the Leh seat and the Union Territory Front candidate backed by the NC won the Nobra seat.

Statistically, therefore, with the support of both the Congress and the NC, the Congress candidate P. Namgyal should be comfortably placed, but given the fact that a powerful Muslim candidate is pitted against him as an independent, the battle for the seat is likely to be a close one.

“Anybody from among the two can win this seat, but there is no foregone conclusion especially because the voting for the Lok Sabha seat in Ladakh has always seen a strong polarisation of interests between the Buddhists and the Muslims,” said Haji Bagh Hussain, 69, a resident of Kargil.

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