SRINAGAR: Murmurs of discontent from candidates rather than speeches can be heard ahead of local body elections in Kashmir with most parties in the fray claiming their leaders are confined to distant hotels in the guise of security and are unable to campaign freely because of the many restrictions imposed on them.
It's just not a level playing field, several candidates said ahead of the November 28 District Development Council polls, the first democratic exercise since Jammu and Kashmir's special status under Article 370 was revoked in August last year and the state was bifurcated into union territories.
Seven parties, including the National Conference and the PDP, have come together on one platform, the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), to contest the elections.
But the lack of enthusiasm is evident with political parties accusing the administration of strictly restricting the hours of campaigning and not even allowing their candidates to move out, unless it is in a government car.
"BJP and 'Kings party' candidates and their junior-level workers are provided individual personal security and bulletproof vehicles, while all others are hounded to far away government accommodations. Is this the 'new mantra' of providing a level playing field?" asked Nasir Aslam Wani, NC provincial president, Kashmir.
"King's party" is a reference to the Apni Party, floated by businessman-turned-politician Altaf Bukhari.
Wani said that PAGD candidates have been locked up in hotels and guesthouses in several places and not allowed to campaign. "I have never witnessed this kind of electioneering - not since the political process started after the eruption of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. We have always had candidates running around. How can you expect somebody to campaign only between 12 noon and 3 pm?" Wani asked.
The NC leader said the claims of the UT administration and Union Home Minister Amit Shah about the situation being peaceful in Jammu and Kashmir were either wrong or they were trying to influence this election.
"If we listen to what the home minister or the state administration has to say, militancy has been wiped out. Then is this being done to influence the election? You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
You have to go one way about it. "Either the situation is safe, as they claim, and let the candidates campaign. Or else, the security scenario is so bad that they cannot create a conducive environment. In that case, why have the polls then?" he added.
Wani said that it is not just about the campaigning not taking place. He added that the party is also worried it may not get candidates to file their nominations for the rest of the eight-phase polls. The administration, on its part, said "collective security" is necessary given the resource limitations.
Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kashmir, Vijay Kumar said providing security to each candidate contesting the polls is difficult. "We are providing them collective security and they are being put up in secure areas," he said.
Rayees Mattoo, a NC candidate of the PAGD from Khag area of central Kashmir's Budgam district, said he has been put up at a hotel here and candidates of the alliance are not allowed to campaign even while their competitors are freely working in the field.
"Is this the way to hold an election? We are not provided with security or vehicles. I had three meetings scheduled for the day and had conveyed the same to the authorities well in advance. But I was not allowed to move out of the hotel as they say there are not enough vehicles or security available," he asserted.
His party colleague and candidate Mohammad Ashraf Lone said there are only six vehicles for about 40 candidates in the hotel he has been allotted. "How can we all move around in just a few vehicles? The government says new faces should contest the polls and so we did. But if they cannot provide us with the facilities, how can we manage? If they do not want us to contest, let them say it then<" he said.
According to Lone, the candidates were told to use the vehicles to campaign but return before 4 pm. "The journey from our hotel to Beerwah (in central Kashmir's Budgam district) itself takes about two hours. How can we campaign in such a short time," he said.
Sabzar Ahmad, an independent candidate from Dooru area of south Kashmir's Anantnag district, said he has been placed in a hotel in Pahalgam and is not allowed to move out. "About 25 of us are here and we feel like prisoners. They do not let us move out, while candidates from other parties go out for campaigning," he said.
Another independent candidate, Akhtar Hussain Magray from Beerwah, withdrew his nomination papers, saying the authorities had failed to provide the candidates with security and other arrangements. Officials privy to the security plan for the polls said the government does not have resources to cater to the needs of every candidate.
"It is so difficult to manage with the resources that we have. There is more demand for logistics and manpower and it gets difficult to rationalise things," an official said. Several candidates are being put up in cluster accommodations which are secured and their movement is facilitated so that they are able to reach their constituencies for campaigning.
IGP Vijay Kumar said the candidates are provided escort when they leave and the security forces secure the area for them to visit and campaign. "Whenever any candidate goes out for campaigning, we provide a double escort with him and secure the area for him to campaign," he said.
The PAGD, led by National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah, was formed to seek the restoration of the erstwhile state's special status. But the alliance announced a plunge into electoral politics to keep the BJP away.