Meet the 25-year-old who will take on heavyweight Farooq Abdullah in Kashmir’s edgy bypoll
Mehraj Khurshid Malik is just 25. But he appears much younger. His face is yet to lose the impish little-boy innocence.
So, the fact that he is an independent candidate for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency bypolls, takes a while to sink in. And this is not it, Malik is also going up against a heavyweight like the National Conference (NC) President and Former J&K CM Farooq Abdullah.
“I know I am a kid in politics. But I have the confidence to take him (Abdullah) on,” Malik said cockily.
Every morning, Malik sets out from his home at Srinagar’s Haidepora to visit the outlying areas of Srinagar parliamentary constituency like Faqir Gujri, Gund Hassipora and Beerwah to meet the residents there.
“I have my contacts and well-wishers who fix up the meetings and then I go,” he said adding, “I don’t have the resources to hold large public meetings. So I go door-to-door to convince people to vote for me.”
The (prodigal) son returns?
Malik has spent most of his life far outside the Valley. He did his early studies at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Jammu, and then moved on to pursue an engineering course at a University in Chandigarh.
For some years Malik was based in Bangalore where he landed a job at Microsoft. “But I quit it to return to Kashmir to fight the election,” said Malik.
Malik has set out a disproportionately bigger motivation for his decision to contest – “I have joined politics in deference to a collective urge for a leadership other than those provided by NC and PDP who have given us nothing but death and suffering”.
However, in the Valley, Malik’s political pitch will struggle to be heard, let alone find a resonance.
In fact, a very few people beyond his tiny group of supporters know, or will care to know, that he is also contesting. And that the importance of his candidature lies in it being a daring exception to the dominant political climate.
In a place where even joining the IAS is a taboo for a large section of the youth and militants are worshipped as heroes, this youth’s plunge into politics at election time can be seen as an exercise more in collaboration with the state rather than a bid to fight for the people's cause.
So, it hardly matters what Malik says, he now belongs to the discredited side of the Valley’s entrenched political binary – pro-establishment versus secessionist politics which abjures electoral politics.
But at the same time, this troubled context makes him stand out and draw some attention amid an electoral battle that has little space for his candidature. The contest is entirely between the NC stalwart Abdullah and the PDP’s lesser known Nazir Ahmad Khan.
The volatile Anantnag is another constituency where the bypoll is being held. The contest there is between the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s brother Tasaduq Mufti and the state Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir.
Anantnag seat had fallen vacant after Mehbooba, who represented the constituency, resigned to take over as the J&K chief minister following her father Mufti Sayeed’s demise on 7 January 2016.
And the then PDP leader Tariq Hameed Karra, who represented Srinagar in Lok Sabha, resigned during the unrest last year in protest against the killings and blindings of protesters. Karra has now joined Congress.
Why these polls matter
The bypoll assumes significance more in the light of last year’s turmoil, rather than for its own sake. For one, it will be a sort of referendum on the popularity of the PDP-BJP coalition, particularly that of PDP blamed for the excesses last year.
But fundamentally, the bypoll will be about the degree of participation of people in the voting.
In past, the extended unrests have often been followed by an overwhelming participation in the polls, in defiance of the boycott call from the separatists.
The 2008 Amarnath land row which led to 60 killings was followed immediately by a record polling, a turn of events which had stunned the Hurriyat, then riding on a heightened separatist sentiment.
A similar situation had unfolded following the 2009 unrest over the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian.
Such participation has often proved demoralising for the separatist cause as people vote in violation of the Hurriyat call for boycott and contrary to the reigning sentiment of the time.
Will this history be replicated in the upcoming bypoll? Not even the diehard votaries of the poll boycott are willing to bet on that.
“I think people will stay away from the polls,” said Rafiq Ahmad Khan, an Azadi supporter in downtown city. “But then who knows what will happen. We can again end up having bumper voting on the polling day”.
But in the end, the boycott or absence of it will make a little difference to the electoral process. At best, the observation of boycott will lead to a reduced participation which can even distort the outcome further.
This is a prospect that raises the hope of unpopular parties, including that of the independents like Malik. The result depends on which candidate’s supporters brave the widespread public hostility to cast their vote. Or which candidate has the means to ferry his supporters to the polling booth.
And this is why Malik prefers to visit the far-flung areas inhabited by ethnic minorities like Gujjars and Bakerwals, who do actually vote, rather than the urban areas or nearby villages which are likely to boycott.
“I am not a public figure. I am not Farooq Abdullah,” said Malik. “But I have full faith, I will win. If my message is spread that here is a young man who wants to change the political system, then I will certainly win”.