|A woman shouts pro-freedom slogans during the funeral of Umer Farooq, a Kashmiri civilian who was killed during Sunday's election in Srinagar. (AP)|
Muzaffar Raina and Anita Joshua, TT, April 10: The Election Commission today deferred the Anantnag parliamentary by-election from April 12 to May 25 after the Mehbooba Mufti administration said the situation was not conducive for voting, a rare admission by a government that amounts to an indictment of its ability to maintain peace.
The PDP-BJP government had submitted a report to the poll panel seeking postponement of Wednesday's vote after yesterday's by-election to the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat witnessed an all-time-low 7.1 per cent turnout amid violence that took eight lives.
Earlier, Mufti Tassaduq Hussain, brother of the chief minister and the ruling People's Democratic Party's candidate for Anantnag, had called for the vote to be put off.
As the Narendra Modi government came under fire for yesterday's violence and poor turnout, Union home ministry sources claimed that they too had advised the poll panel against holding the Srinagar and Anantnag by-elections.
They indicated that the Union home secretary had written to the commission today to defer the Anantnag vote citing the situation in Kashmir, which has been in turmoil since Hizb militant Burhan Wani was killed by the security forces last July.
Poll panel sources, however, said the commission had a constitutional obligation to conduct the Srinagar by-election before April 16.
They insisted that the state government had been consulted as it was responsible for law and order. Since the Mehbooba administration was itself planning to conduct panchayat elections, they said, the commission decided that the parliamentary by-elections could be held.
As for the Union home ministry's role, the poll panel officials said it was responsible only for providing central paramilitary forces.
A commission official said the poll panel was "not bound to consult the home ministry before holding any election". It's the commission that is "responsible for an overall assessment of the prevailing situation before holding elections", he added.
Reacting to the Union home ministry's view about the situation not being favourable for polls, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: "Welcome to Kashmir 2017. What a damning indictment of the @BJP4India & @jkpdp."
State chief electoral officer Shantmanu, who had yesterday said that Anantnag would be a much bigger challenge than Srinagar, had earlier met representatives of the ruling PDP-BJP as well as the Opposition National Conference and the Congress to seek their opinion on a postponement.
He later told reporters that, paradoxically, the ruling partners had called for a postponement while the Opposition insisted on the elections being held as scheduled.
It is rare for ruling parties to seek a deferment of polls because it implies they are not in charge in their state.
Tempers ran high during the meeting with Shantmanu, with National Conference and BJP representatives nearly coming to blows, sources said.
The trigger was a National Conference member's comment blaming the current mess on the decision by the PDP and the BJP to join hands for government formation, "thus bringing the RSS to the state".
The state government's postponement plea to the commission seems to have stemmed as much from fears of more violence as from worries that Tassaduq might not win if the by-election is held now.
Tassaduq had earlier offered to withdraw from the fray if it helped ease tensions. "The present situation in the Valley is not right for elections. Eight lives have been lost. You cannot force people to vote," he told reporters in Srinagar.
Omar said Tassaduq's statement was an admission of the failure of his sister's government. "How can the BJP not see this?" he tweeted.
The PDP has traditionally banked on the support of the pro-independence brigade, which is unlikely to vote this time.
Mehbooba's party feared that areas where the National Conference and the Congress were strong might witness some voting, helping Tassaduq's rival Ghulam Ahmad Mir, the joint candidate of the two biggest Opposition parties.
Like their Union home ministry counterparts, state officials too sought to blame the poll panel for the Srinagar fiasco. They said that both the civil administration and the police had advised the commission against holding the by-elections.
"The state chief secretary wrote to the commission but it went ahead with the polling," a source said.
Today was the last day of campaigning in Anantnag but there were no signs of electioneering anywhere in the constituency. The government has deployed 25,000 troops for the polls but that did not prevent protesters from torching two schools designated as booths today.