This breathtakingly beautiful mountainous assembly constituency of the Jammu region has often been called 'Chota Kashmir' for its geographic, cultural and religious affinity with the Kashmir Valley.If Ganderbal in the valley has been the political bastion of the Abdullahs and the ruling National Conference, Bhaderwah has been so for the Congress and its leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.This assembly election is going to put the political legacy of both the Congress and Azad to a litmus test in Bhaderwah.Sharief Niaz, Azad's cousin, is seeking re-election against Mehboob Iqbal of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Daleep Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Riaz Anayatullah of the National Conference besides nine other candidates.Iqbal is a retired IAS officer who belongs to Bhaderwah. The Congress has won this seat seven times while the National Conference won from here in 1987 and the BSP in 1996.Sharief Niaz won from here in 2002 to become a minister in the then Congress-PDP coalition government headed by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.
He won again in 2008.Azad is giving his best shot to campaign in this constituency because for him it is more than just retaining the seat for his party."It is Azad Sahib's personal reputation as the tallest leader of the Congress that will be tested in these elections," a Congress loyalist said here.For both Azad and his party to remain relevant in Jammu and Kashmir, the electoral battle here is being seen as a Kurekshetra battle."How can the Congress and its most prominent leader remain relevant in Kashmir politics if Bhaderwah slips out of its hands?" asked voter Chuni Lal, 57.Although it will be a four-cornered contest involving the Congress, the National Conference, the BJP and the PDP, given the long history of polarization on communal lines, it will be an uphill task this time for Niaz to retain the seat.Muslims in Bhaderwah have always been influenced by the developments in the Kashmir Valley rather than those in the Jammu region.This has caused a backlash with the Hindu population of the constituency taking its cue from the Hindu majority Jammu region.The constituency has 58 percent Muslim and 42 percent Hindu voters.
It is generally believed that religious polarization would help the BJP in Bhaderwah as the Muslim vote is likely to be pided between the Congress, the PDP and the National Conference.But, interestingly, nobody talks of religious polarization at election meetings, road shows and rallies.The Congress is focussing its campaign on development made by Bhaderwah during its rule. It blames the National Conference and the PDP for what could not be achieved on the development front.The PDP is focussed on the three-year rule of its patron Mufti Muhammad Sayeed from 2002 to 2005, and the alleged poor governance by the Congress-National Conference coalition during the last six years.The BJP is banking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's appeal besides accusing its three main rivals of promoting dynastic rule in the state.The constituency has 104,354 voters, including 49,723 women. It will go to the polls in the first phase of voting Nov 25.