Will Geelani’s campaign help National Conference?

    By Sheikh Qayoom, IANS,

    Srinagar : The whirlwind anti-election campaign by hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani is hitting hard mainstream opposition parties in Jammu and Kashmir though there is no love lost between Geelani and the ruling National Conference.

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    After the authorities lifted house arrest restrictions on Geelani last month, the votary of Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan has been touring towns and villages asking people to stay away from the coming elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

    Interestingly, this time the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by former chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and the People’s Conference of Sajad Gani Lone are at the top of the octogenarian separatist leader’s ‘political hit list’.

    During his largely attended public rallies in northern and southern towns of the Kashmir Valley, Geelani spoke against the mainstream political parties, targeting the PDP and the People’s Conference in specific terms.

    His criticism of the National Conference remained generic.

    While south Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag are political strongholds of the PDP as most of its legislators in the 87-member assembly are from these districts, Sajad Gani Lone is expected to field candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Kupwara and Baramulla districts in north Kashmir.

    In Shopian town, Geelani targeted PDP patron Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s role as the country’s home minister in 1989-90 while he criticised all mainstream political parties, including the National Conference, in general terms.

    During the 2002 and 2008 assembly elections in the valley, Geelani’s parent organization Jamaat-e-Islami was widely perceived as being soft vis-a-vis the PDP.

    There has been a general perception that during those elections the Jamaat’s ground level cadre voted for the PDP to dent the National Conference’s prospects of forming a government.

    National Conference patron and central Minister Farooq Abdullah is on record as having said that the Jamaat rank and file helped the PDP in both 2002 and 2008.

    Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently said that Geelani’s attack on the PDP and the People’s Conference besides the National Conference proves “there is no fixed match between the separatists and our mainstream opponents”.

    National Conference critics in the PDP and other parties have accused Geelani of indirectly helping the ruling party by specifically targeting the PDP and the People’s Conference.

    “It is hard to believe that Geelani would strike a deal with the government for lifting his house arrest restrictions, but there is a definite pattern to his anti-election campaign,” a senior PDP leader said.

    Supporters of the hardline leader argue that the main agenda of the senior separatist leader was to oppose the elections irrespective of whose power prospects are affected by his campaign.

    While his campaign is unlikely to influence voter participation in rural and far flung areas in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in 2014, voter turnout in towns is likely to get affected.

    Srinagar city has been recording very low voter turnout ever since separatist violence broke out in the state in the early 1990s.

    Low voter boycott in Srinagar in 2014 is likely to favour the National Conference that has won all eight assembly seats in the 2008 assembly polls when not many people in the city came out to exercise their franchise.

    The PDP has been blaming the National Conference for using low voter turnout in the city to its advantage by ferrying “mobile voters from one polling booth to the other” during earlier election boycotts.

    National Conference supporters dismiss the allegation, saying the PDP has so far failed to get a foothold in Srinagar despite its best efforts.

    Whatever way one looks at it, Geelani’s ‘freedom from house arrest’ could ‘arrest’ the power prospects of National Conference opponents in the coming elections.

    (Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at [email protected])