Nearly a year after her bitter split with the BJP, PDP leader and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Muftis popularity in her traditional family stronghold Anantnag will be on test when the Lok Sabha constituency goes to polls in three phases on April 23, 29 and May 6.
Mufti, who was elected to the Lok Sabha from this constituency in 2014, is being challenged by state Congress chief G.A. Mir and former judge of Jammu and Kashmir High Court Justice Hasnain Masoodi of the National Conference.
Analysts feel that the 59-year-old PDP President has taken a huge political risk by entering the electoral fray herself despite the substantial anger against her in her constituency for aligning with the BJP.
Interestingly, Shams Khwaja of Uttar Pradesh, a non-state subject of Jammu and Kashmir (one who does not have permanent residency certificate of Jammu and Kashmir as per Article 370 of the Constitution), is also contesting the polls from this constituency, possibly marking a first in the state.
Sofi Yusuf of the BJP is also among the 18 candidates in the fray here.
Another first this time is that polling will be held in three phases for the single Lok Sabha constituency of Anantnag in view of heightened terrorism in south Kashmir.
The recent major attack in south Kashmir took place on February 14 when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into a CRPF convoy in Pulwama district, killing 40 security personnel.
It was because of the heightened terrorism in this area that the by-election could not be held till now for the Lok Sabha constituency ever since Mehbooba Mufti resigned from the seat after becoming the Chief Minister of the state following death of her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
All four districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama have seen increased terrorism since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burban Wani was killed in a gunfight with the security forces in Kokernag area of Anantnag district in July 2016.
Burhani’s killing unleashed the 2016 unrest in the Kashmir valley in which 98 civilian protesters were killed and over 4,000 others lost their vision partially or permanently due to pellet gunshots fired by the security forces to control unruly mobs.
After Burhan’s killing, scores of local youths reportedly joined the militant ranks.
Mehbooba Mufti was the Chief Minister then, heading a coalition government of PDP and BJP. The coalition government collapsed in June last year when the BJP withdrew its support.
The Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency has traditionally been a political stronghold of the PDP and Mehbooba Mufti’s victory or defeat is likely to weigh heavily on the prospects of her party’s performance when Assembly elections are held in the state which is under the President’s Rule currently.
The constituency has 16 Assembly segments of Anantnag, Bijbehara, Kokernag, Shangus, Devsar, Homeshalibugh, Noorabad, Kulgam, Dooru, Shopian, Wachi, Rajpora, Pulwama, Tral, Pahalgam and Pampore.
Of these, the PDP had won in 11, the National Conference and Congress in 2 each and the CPI-M in 1 in the 2014.
Ghulam Ahmad Mir of the Congress has a strong support base in Dooru, Kokernag, Shangus and Devsar voting segments.
The election campaign of all three main contestants — PDP, NC and Congress — is largely focused on the preservation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution which guarantee special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
The BJP has declared its commitment to abrogate these articles if voted to power again.
Security forces face a huge challenge to ensure incident-free elections in this constituency.
Unprecedented security arrangements have been planned for the three days the constituency goes to vote.
A total of 13,93,370 voters are eligible to exercise vote in 1,842 polling stations on April 23, April 29 and May 6.