Omar Abdullah seeks to erase blip in party history (Constituency Profile)

November 10th, 2008 - 2:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Ganderbal (Jammu and Kashmir), Nov 10 (IANS) The high profile north Kashmir assembly constituency of Ganderbal, considered a National Conference (NC) bastion for years, has brought many politicians to power, but has also seen them biting the dust.When NC founder Sheikh Abdullah returned to mainstream politics in 1975 after 22 years of political disillusionment with New Delhi, the then sitting Congress legislator from Ganderbal, Muhammad Maqbool Bhat, quit the seat to allow the Lion of Kashmir - as the Sheikh was known - to fight the by-polls.

The Sheikh won the 1975 by-polls from here and became chief minister with Congress support. He later fell out with the Congress and won elections from Ganderbal again in 1977.

Traditionally a strong bastion of the NC, the constituency has earlier also been represented by NC candidates in 1957 and 1962.

After the Sheikh’s death in 1982, his son and present NC patron Farooq Abdullah won elections from here in 1983, 1987 and 1996.

Because of their unassailable grip on this constituency, the NC regarded Ganderbal as its political backyard until the voters shocked them in 2002 when a non-entity, Qazi Muhammad Afzal, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) defeated the NC president and its then chief ministerial candidate Omar Abdullah by 2,870 votes.

Qazi secured 11,622 votes as compared to 8,752 polled by Omar. The total number of votes polled was 24,081 in the 2002 elections.

The stage is once again set for a battle royale in this prestigious constituency as Omar once again is pitted against Qazi and 10 other candidates of different parties and independents.

But 2008 is not 2002. Much water has flowed down the Sindh stream that divides this constituency into two parts.

After the controversial forest land allotment order by the Congress-PDP coalition government to a temple board that manages the the two-month long annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine, Qazi has attracted huge public criticism in this constituency.

He held the forest portfolio in the coalition government and the people in Ganderbal, as elsewhere in the Valley, squarely blamed Qazi for signing the land allotment order.

Despite criticism, Qazi cannot be totally written off as a potential rival against Omar. He has pockets of influence in the Lar belt of Ganderbal.

A surprise entry into the electoral fray here this time is the son of a former NC minister, Sheikh Abdul Jabbar, who was killed by separatist guerrillas in his Lar village home in the early 1990s.

His son, Sheikh Muhammad Ashfaq, resigned from the police and is now fighting elections as a Congress candidate from here.

Ashfaq has his late father’s goodwill and a clean image to sell to the voters in Ganderbal. So the contest here would be mainly between Omar, Qazi and Ashfaq.

Omar’s return to Ganderbal appears to have struck a favourable chord with NC supporters, who were down in the dumps since their party’s 2002 defeat.

“Omar Abdullah is going to win hands down. There is no question of anybody else even equalling half the number of votes that will be polled in our favour,” said Sheikh Gulam Ahmad Saloora, the provincial president of the NC who is part of Omar’s campaign team and a resident of the constituency.

But when Omar filed his nomination papers Nov 3, there was a total shutdown in Ganderbal. The NC blamed it on “Qazi’s stone pelting brigade of hooligans”.

Interestingly, when Qazi filed his papers, there was another shutdown in the local markets. And he blamed the NC for that.

“There was a shutdown because the separatists have announced a poll boycott. This fact is being consciously underplayed by both the NC and the PDP,” said Abdul Salam, 62, a resident of the constituency.

“A low voter turnout could damage the NC as we are expecting an overwhelming support for Omar sahib this time,” said Abdul Rehman Mir, another NC leader in Ganderbal.

There are 77,616 voters in this constituency of whom, 39,982 are men and 37,634 women.

The total number of polling stations established for 2008 elections is 79. The constituency goes to polls Nov 23 in the second phase of the seven-phase elections in the state.

Going by a visible undercurrent here, Omar has a clear advantage over his rivals in the constituency this time. But believing his victory to be a foregone conclusion could be a mistake the NC cannot afford to repeat.

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