In Depth

Poll Day in Srinagar: Deserted booths, ‘assured’ Abdullahs and a party diehard

fpk photo/wasim nabi

The largely seen one-sided poll contest for Srinagar parliamentary constituency once again drew the classic indifferent response. In a deserted poll booth closer to Gupkar, as Abdullahs turned up to cast their ballot, their party loyalist some distance away was making it sure that they stay convinced about the upshot.

Ask any Kashmiri the way to the moon and he will give you a sure-shot answer, and if in case any more nice, will even accompany you all the way. But when on Thursday the central part of Kashmir underwent the second phase of parliamentary polls, not many of total 1.3 lakh registered voters knew the address of even their nearby polling stations, and the ones aware, would mostly reply with a ridiculed expression.

Regardless, with pulled shutters, snapped internet and restricted civil movement, the polling commenced sharp at 7:00 am across the deserted streets of Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal.

Overlooking the city’s Abdullah Bridge built across river Jhelum – where the street poles are entangled with faded red, green and blue coloured flags of premiere parties PDP, NC and PC respectively – a polling booth stood low at Aramwari, near Raj Bagh.

Guarded by armed men from all across, two electoral rooms were set up with tin sheets, which reflected brightly under the early sunrays of Thursday morning. Until 9:00 am, only a handful of votes were polled here, lesser than the number of passersby at famous Zero footbridge.

Polling station at Aramwari, Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

In one of the rooms, a group of five electoral workers sat relaxed on their wooden chair – there to attend the voters, if any – were seen talking to a hazel-eyed boy in a grey sweatshirt, holding a notepad and a pen, whom I supposed to be a fellow journalist.

Seeing that, I entered the room, where I was collectively given dull-blank stares from everyone present inside. After an awkward pause, one of the officers in a high-pitched tone asked me to introduce myself; I did so, only to be taught about the ‘guidelines’ – a reporter cannot enter inside the polling room, I was told by the man I mistook to be a journalist.

He happened to be the sector magistrate, who has an on-ground role of overlooking the smooth functioning of polling stations falling under its designated area of work.

Alhamdulillah, everything is going just fine,” he said, keeping it short when inquired about the number of turnouts. His replies were crisp and generic, reason: he did not want to be named, photographed or reported about his work.

As much I asked him about his role of work, he kept ducking all the questions. Going by the 15-minute mindful-conversation that regardless-ly followed, the young man happened to be on an additional election-duty for the first time – alongside working as a full-time Assistant Engineer with the R&B department.

Although he did not reason his fear for identity, but then, it’s quite understandable.

Even at one of the booths in Habba Kadal, a government authorised agent looked very happy about his additional responsibility, but quickly covered his face when requested to pose for a picture.

“It’s all going awesome, bro. You ask me whatever you want,” – is how confident he earlier was, while talking to me, the journalist. But just as I focussed my phone-camera at him, he rolled up his black cloth tied loosely around his neck to quickly cover his face, so as, only the eye-portion was visible.

A polling station in Habba Kadal, in Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

Sitting in front of a dilapidated government school-building, his job was to authorise personal details of the voter and only then allow them to further get their index finger, inked. Having introduced himself with only his initials – Omar – he tried pretending all fearless from the outside, but from within, he evidently wanted me to not ask any further questions; so, I did not.

Individuals like Omar and one like the sector magistrate, are the ones that find themselves stuck between the anti-voting outrage and their efforts to save the money-minting jobs to meet their necessary requirements.

The anger amongst the Kashmiris against the electoral process is such that a group of local journalists – awaiting the arrival of NC’s Abdullahs outside Gupkar’s Burn Hall School – were shouted at as ‘Gadaar [Traitor]…’ by a group of young passersby from inside their four-wheeler.

The group of reporters were merely on their professional duties, as taken other way by the angry boys.

Been waiting since 7:00 in the morning to record one favoured byte from NC’s Srinagar parliamentary contestant and valley’s seasoned unionist Farooq Abdullah, the journalists at around 9:30 in the morning had come out to look for a refreshing tea, only to be left disappointed by the shooting remark, and moreover, the pulled down shutters.

While several other journalists were seen resting their feet inside the school campus, although, with a dejected face, the Abdullahs were just taking their time to arrive.

It was finally at 10:20 AM, when the father-son duo turned up in a lavish four-wheeler, guarded by a long line of armed men, as both stepped out sporting their shiny black shoes.

Twinning in the shades of grey, the Abdullahs walked past the angled media-shutterbugs, posing a wide smile on their clean-shaved faces – speaking the kind of confidence the duo have going to the ‘one-sided contest’ with their rival parties.

Thanks to the nil voting-queue, it was only a matter of few minutes before they were out to flaunt their inked fingers to the cameras – dying for that one favoured frame the New Delhi media-houses had been long waiting for. By 10:27 am, they were all out and done, effortlessly off to their Gupkar residence.

Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah after casting their vote at a polling station, in Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi)

But kilometres away in the old city’s Khanyar, it was a man with an unkempt beard who possibly is one of the reasons behind the relaxed and charming faces of Abdullahs.

On his toes, this small party man had been waiting for this very day for months together, to be precise, since October, last year. Today, he had about 172 men in the form of Polling Booth Agents, spread across all the stations in Downtown.

Since joining the party in 2014 as a block secretary, he has come a long way to now overlook the Khanyar constituency as the block president – humbly introducing himself as a ‘third generation NC activist’, Abid Wani.

Wani has worked day-in-and-out to ensure his party a safe base in the restive lanes of downtown, where he claims to have made way for at least ‘630 potential voters’.

“How?” I ask.

“I convinced them about the setup, the design, and I told them I will always be in-debt – the usual political vocabulary, you see,” the learned man answers.

Not that Wani was always welcomed; he has also been ‘dragged out of the houses and even faced door-slams right on his face’, but the determined NC loyalist, who was out there with a ‘candour approach’, kept himself far from giving up.

“I told them,” Wani continues, “I am not here to justify my presence for mere votes, I am trying to reach out to you. I am trying to reason with you… I am ready to debate with you over a cup of coffee and if I am able to convince, only then you can join the process.”

And many did, as many as 182 people, perhaps, of which, many even converted from the ‘separatist mindset’.

“Majority of them are youth, like you and me… and say, only 10-12 of them would be middle-aged, in their 40s or something,” he adds.

Abid Wani at a polling station in Khanyar area of Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

True to Wani, I came across at least one such individual at each of the booth stations in Downtown area. For instance, the one sitting alongside Omar in Habba Kadal was also one of Wani’s men.

According to him, every ‘influencer’ was personally handpicked. “In fact,” he notes, “to select those two right men, I had to interview at least 60 people on an average; because ultimately these are the men who are going to be the party’s main resource during the times of election.”

But despite working as a ‘mainstream flag-bearer’ in restive downtown, Wani largely stared at desolated booths. The pervasive poll response was itself a message that some ‘biddings and efforts’ only draw indifference in Kashmir.

 

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