“You may think, she’s already become chief minister, why do we need to vote? I don’t need your votes to become chief minister. But with each vote, you do me an honour.” Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was talking to a small crowd in Kamad village in Anantnag assembly constituency, which goes to polls on Wednesday. The seat fell vacant after Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed died in January. For his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, fighting to keep Anantnag in the family, winning these polls is about izzat, honour.

Kamad is a village on the peripheries of Anantnag town in South Kashmir. On June 18, residents were clustered around the local mosque, waiting. Old men sat on the mosque steps, clutching pamphlets handed out by a rival party, young men hung about in languid groups, women peered from windows and terraces. Paramilitary personnel stood in doorways, massive trucks offloaded Special Operations Group personnel into the streets as the blue-clad Special Security Group scoped for bombs in a garbage dump. Above this all fluttered the green flags with the pen and inkpot symbol of Mufti's Peoples Democratic Party.

Local journalists remember this village was a hotbed of militancy in the 1990s, when men with guns strode down the streets in broad daylight. Since then, the village has settled into relative calm. Today, those who do vote in the elections tend to vote for the PDP. In the assembly elections of 2014, a total of 686 votes were polled in Kamad-A and Kamad-B. Of these, 380 went to the PDP.

The PDP’s popularity here is not surprising. Mehbooba Mufti is believed to have built the party in South Kashmir by going door to door, reaching out to families that had lost sons to militancy, even attending funerals. It prompted a slightly unnerved Hurriyat to nickname her “Rudaali” or weeping woman.

But this poll has brought a more aloof politician to Anantnag.

The chief minister flitted through the neighbourhood in her black SUV, trailing a caterpillar of security, in what was euphemistically called a “road show”. Kamad was just one stop in a whirlwind tour of the constituency. At each halt, she emerged from the car to be garlanded, reminded people she was her father’s daughter, said a few soothing words about tourism and horticulture, and swept on.

The PDP ran a curiously low-key campaign this time. Senior party leaders claim this is out of respect for the month of Ramzan. Rival party leaders claim the Mehbooba Mufti had the poll scheduled during Ramzan precisely because she wanted a low-key election. Whatever the truth of these allegations, the PDP has cause to be nervous.

This is the first election in J&K after the PDP and Bharatiya Janata Party came together to form the state government. According to popular sentiment in the streets of Anantnag, the alliance with the Hindutva party was a betrayal of the mandate given to the PDP in the assembly elections of 2014. So this election is more than a question of family honour. It is a test of the PDP-BJP government’s legitimacy in the Kashmir Valley.

The betrayal

The day before the roadshow, Cheeni Chowk, the old quarters of Anantnag town, was seething. Stone pelting had broken out after Friday prayers at the local mosque and tear gas had been used on protesters. The crowd had dispersed but small groups of people still stood around in the alleys, lined with shops and tall, brooding townhouses. According to residents, this patch of market has always seen a low voter turnout.

“In the previous election, the PDP said 'save Kashmir, keep out the BJP', that’s why they got a majority in the [Muslim-dominated] Valley,” said Gowhar Bhat, a businessman in Cheeni Chowk. “In Jammu, the BJP said 'save [Hindu-majority] Jammu, bring BJP', that’s why they got a majority there. The tie-up of the two parties is not right for either people.”

In Ganjiwara, the marketplace across the road from Cheeni Chowk, people are said to vote in greater numbers. But even here the PDP has few takers. “They asked people to vote in the name of religion,” said Manzoor Ahmed Pushoo, a shopkeeper in the locality and a staunch Congress supporter. “They said the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] would cut down Muslims. They put such a fear in people that they voted for the PDP. Both PDP and BJP misled Muslims and Hindus. They have broken the bonds between the two communities.”

Jan Wasin, an advocate in Anantnag town, went so far as to suggest that the parties are trying to change the demography of the state. The National Eligibility Entrance Test that will bring aspiring medical students from around the country to institutions in the state and the plans for sainik colonies to resettle retired soldiers here will affect the territory's special status under Article 370 of the Constitution, he claimed. "We aligned with secular India," Wasin said. "We did not align with people who want to set up temples everywhere and want ghar wapsi for Muslims.”

In the main town, where calls to boycott the elections are more audible, voter participation has always been weak. The PDP has usually made its gains from villages on the peripheries of the town. But even here, there is anger against the party.

In the quiet village of Mir Danter and in the backward pocket of Krangsoo, for instance, residents rage against the tie-up and speak of their disillusionment with a government that has failed to keep its promises of economic development. Parties came during election time, paid people to vote and then disappeared for the next five years, they claim.

PDP repackaged

On the face of it, the PDP is unfazed. “We have an agenda, and we work accordingly,” said Sartaj Madni, a senior party leader and brother-in-law of the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “Mufti saab was a statesman. With the mandate he got, this [the alliance] was the only option to unite Jammu and Kashmir. The people are understanding that. The PDP has never diluted its stand, and never will.”

Waheed Ur Rehman Para, president of the party’s youth wing, admitted that people "could not digest the alliance”. But he soon pressed on to other matters – the PDP’s outreach among the youth, social media platforms where problems were heard and addressed, initiatives to change the school curriculum and projects to revolutionise horticulture.

Besides, he said, Mehbooba Mufti’s candidacy had energised the party cadre. “Mufti saab was a big personality even outside the state,” Para explained. “Mehbooba Mufti is basically a party worker, people know her personally. Seeing her as chief minister gives party workers a great sense of achievement.” With such a winning combination, the party had nothing to worry about.

In spite of the bravado, the PDP has subtly recalibrated its old positions. The party that rose to power projecting its sympathies for the separatist agenda is now wary of the “soft separatist” tag. “We are not soft on separatists,” Para hastened to explain. “We are only trying to integrate the lot that has been eliminated from the mainstream. If we seek justice for human rights violations, that is not soft.”

As for self-rule, the PDP’s recipe for bringing separatism into the democratic mainstream, it has been unpacked into its constituent demands. If self-rule does not come as a package, it can be demanded clause by clause, the party seems to feel. But that is not all. A politics that was built around demanding greater autonomy has now found a new centre of gravity in economic aspirations. “Asking for the state’s power projects to be returned, wanting Kashmir to become an international hub, wanting a common currency for India and Pakistan, isn’t that all about self-rule?” demanded Madni.

Soft target

However the PDP tries to cut it, the alliance with the BJP and the party’s slow gravitation towards the centre has made it a soft target for political rivals. Seven candidates besides Mehbooba Mufti are in the fray and all the key players have their guns trained on the PDP.

The candidate who might give the PDP reason to worry is the Congress’s Hilal Shah. In 2014, Shah had finished second in Anantnag, with 10,955 votes to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s 16,983. This time, the Congress is running a campaign that is as lavish as the PDP’s is spare. Actor Raj Babbar and cricketer Mohahammad Azharuddin have been shipped in for star power. Audiences at Congress rallies were showered with confetti and promised selfies with the celebrities.

Shah himself has built a politics out of plenty. The dapper, moustachioed 39-year-old lives in a palatial house in Anantnag town and made his fortune as a contractor supplying goods for the army. Perhaps that is why he is pursued by rumours that he was once part of the Ikhwan, the dreaded counter-insurgency force raised by the Indian army in Kashmir.

Shah dismisses these charges. “The Ikhwan wound up in 1996,” he said. “I was in Bangalore for college and I came back to Kashmir in 1998. Was I running the Ikhwan from Bangalore?” He claims that the rumours were floated by jealous political rivals.

Immediately after returning from Bangalore, Shah started his business. Soon, the wealthy businessman turned philanthropist and in 2007 he joined politics. “I was doing a lot of social work,” he said. “I realised politics could also be a type of social work.” After the floods of 2014, Shah reportedly spent his personal resources on relief and compensation for victims. Across the constituency, there are people who say they will vote for Shah because he personally helped them after the “sehlaab” (flood). The government, according to them, was missing in action.

Bitterness about government inaction after the floods still runs deep, but Shah has not made relief and rehabilitation his main election plank. Ask him about the centrepiece of his campaign and you get a different answer: “The biggest issue is that in 2014, the PDP fought elections to stall the BJP’s Mission 44, then it joined hands with them. The RSS is now opening offices in Kashmir. It was a big deception.”

And others

Shah is not alone. The National Conference is a spent force in South Kashmir, especially after its star campaigner, Mehboob Beg, defected to the PDP just before the 2014 assembly elections. But now it has smelt blood. The NC ran a spirited campaign in Anantnag, parachuting working president Omar Abdullah down to the constituency.

At a rally in Krangsoo, Abdullah taunted Mehbooba Mufti for abandoning the separatists she had once championed. “Where is the Mehbooba Mufti who used to shout for the repeal of AFSPA [the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act], who used to say ‘goli nahin boli’?” he demanded. “Yasin Malik [leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front] is now in jail in a 28-year-old case. There is no one who can get him out.” Incidentally, two days after Abdullah’s speech, Malik was out of jail and on his way to a rally in Anantnag town, only to be detained again.

The National Conference candidate, Iftikhar Hussain Misger, raised the death of Zahid Ahmed, at the height of the beef agitation last year. The trucker, who was burnt to death over rumours that he was carrying beef, belonged to a village bordering Anantnag constituency. “Come out on June 22 to cast your votes and defeat Modi,” he said to voters at the Krangsoo rally, “to defeat the powers that burnt alive our brother Zahid, the powers that banned beef.”

Meanwhile, Engineer Rashid’s Awami Ittehad Party also senses an opportunity in South Kashmir. The charismatic leadership of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed might have made the coalition palatable to voters, but Mehbooba Mufti’s prolonged period of indecision after her father’s death before striking a new alliance with the BJP was a sign of political immaturity, felt Mujibur Rehman, the Awami Ittehad Party candidate in Anantnag.

Polls in the time of boycott

In the end, all the parties know they are talking to a limited pool of voters, to the small minority that will actually make its way to the polling booths on Wednesday. Voter turnout was a modest 39% in the 2014 assembly polls. This time, even the PDP does not expect more than 30% of the electorate to vote. Like all elections in the Valley, this by-poll is hemmed in by forces that lie outside the electoral process – the constant, oppressive security presence and the inevitable boycott call.

Anantnag is one of the four South Kashmir districts that have seen a new wave of local militancy, and security concerns run high. Days before the elections, Hizbul Mujahideen posters have gone up on walls across the town. Citing verses from the Quran, the Hizbul warns people against secularism, nationalism and “godless democracy”, all of which apparently go against the tenets of Islam. Maulvis, muftis and khateebs are told to preach jihad or else say their last prayers.

The police and security forces have spent much of their energies in snuffing out boycott calls from across the separatist spectrum. At a press conference that was rudely interrupted by the police, Qazi Yasir, a prominent cleric in South Kashmir, asked people not to vote in an election “which only disfigures our struggle for azadi”.

From his home in Srinagar, hardline Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani railed against people who attended political rallies and voted. “They do not realise that by doing so they are strengthening their chains of slavery and are voting for people who are Indian agents, slaves of India,” he said. “Whether it is the National [Conference] or Congress party or PDP or Awami Ittehad Party or any other party, they are all fulfilling India’s wishes, RSS’s wishes.” According to local media, Hurriyat leaders in Anantnag have already been detained by the police.

But all the arrests and crackdowns cannot do away with a widespread distaste for elections, which renders all political calculations irrelevant. “We don’t want to vote,” said a trader in Cheeni Chowk. “We don’t want to involve ourselves with such sinners.”