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Friday, 11 October, 2002, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
A new era in Kashmiri politics
People's democratic Party leaders Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Sayeed
Mehbooba Mufti (right): Emerging star

People in Indian-administered Kashmir are still coming to terms with the changed political reality after the surprise electoral defeat of the ruling party.

Kashmiri newspapers described the ouster of the National Conference as "a political earthquake".


The fact is that many do believe that this has been one of the fairest elections in Kashmiri history

Shujaat Bukhari, local journalist
It is the first time the party has been voted out of office since independence.

The results have been greeted with wonder, enthusiasm and even a faint sense of optimism about the future of this disputed state that has been at the heart of differences between India and Pakistan.

End of an era

For most people, the lasting image of the polls has been that of a shattered Omar Abdullah, who heads the National Conference, driving away from the counting centre after his shock defeat.

Mr Abdullah belongs to a political dynasty that has influenced Kashmiri politics for the past seven decades.
Farooq Abdullah
Farooq Abdullah: Ousted!

On Thursday, he lost his family's traditional seat in Ganderbal from where his grandfather, the legendary Sheikh Abdullah, had successfully contested elections.

Many now say this one result could have a lasting impact on politics in the Indian-ruled part of the state.

"No one could ever have imagined that the Abdullahs could have been defeated," says local journalist Shujaat Bukhari.

Others hailed the historic significance of the change.

"There is a feeling of catharsis across [the Kashmir] valley today," wrote the Greater Kashmir newspaper in a front page leader.

"Not as much for the rout of National Conference as for the fact that the results reflect for once the people's own will and aspirations."

Rising star

Nothing symbolises the dramatic shift in the political landscape in Kashmir than the scene outside the headquarters of the regional People's Democratic Party, which has emerged as key victor.

Located in the home of the party's founders, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti, the party office till a few days ago was a quiet, deserted place.

Congress Party leader, Gulam Nabi Azad
Gulam Nabi Azad: Chief Ministerial nominee?
On Friday, the road leading to the Sayeeds' residence was barricaded by police, as thousands of supporters gathered outside cheering lustily.

Inside, Mehbooba Mufti, the soft-spoken party leader who built the party's political fortunes in just three years, accepted congratulations.

The rise of the PDP is being watched with great interest because of its success in overthrowing the National Conference, but more importantly because of its tough stance against human rights abuses.

"We have always felt the Indian security forces should be accountable" and action taken against them if they commit atrocities against local people," Mehbooba Mufti told the BBC.

Rashid, a greying schoolteacher who has come to the party office to catch a glimpse of Mehbooba Mufti, says the PDP inspired trust.

"Whenever she received complaints against the security forces, Mehbooba Mufti would make a personal effort to make sure action was taken," he says.

Misplaced hope?

Some observers say the election results could prove to be a major turning point in the attempt to resolve the Kashmir problem.

"For many Kashmiris these elections are a watershed. Their faith in democracy, and in the power of their vote, has been partially restored and this is an important first step in the quest for peace," says local journalist Muzamil Jameel.


Are people going to stop getting killed

Basheer, Taxi driver
PDP President Mufti Mohammad Sayeed points out that Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has said he is ready to talk to the elected representatives of the Kashmiri people.

"Nearly half of the electorate turned out to vote. So we have a degree of credibility which many others lack," he says.

"The fact is that many do believe that this has been one of the fairest elections in Kashmiri history," adds Shujaat Bukhari.

Separatists

But not everybody is convinced. Many point out that the elections were fought among the pro-India parties, with the separatists choosing to keep away.

Kashmiri separatist leader Sajjad Lone
Separatists boycotted the poll

"These elections were not about Kashmir's future they were about local issues: more schools, jobs, better roads etc," says separatist leader Sajjad Lone.

Others feel that until the Indian Government chose to involve the separatists and Pakistan in the peace process little would be achieved.

"Are people going to stop getting killed," asks Basheer, a taxi driver in Srinagar.

"That will be the ultimate test of whether or not these elections have achieved anything."

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See also:

11 Oct 02 | South Asia
09 Oct 02 | South Asia
09 Oct 02 | South Asia
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