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Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.

Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.

Handwara (north Kashmir), Dec. 1: Sajjad Lone is walking too many paradoxes to bother finessing them.

His political legacy is separatist but he is pushing for an elected mainstream ledge. His wife Asma is daughter to the Pakistan-based chairman of the JKLF, Amanullah Khan, but she is scurrying tirelessly around town and hamlet canvassing an Assembly seat for her husband.

His shadow ally in this militancy-infested border outpost is the “Hindu nationalist” Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. The taunt that has relentlessly trailed Sajjad’s campaign is: “Jo Modi kaa yaar hai, gaddar hai, gaddar hai (Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor, is a traitor).”

But if Sajjad’s adversaries — chief minister Omar Abdullah and challenger Mufti Mohammed Sayeed — believe they are embarrassing the People’s Conference (PC) leader with the Modi link, they are shooting north Kashmir’s grey chill.

Sajjad is playing Modi like his password to an Assembly debut. To his final pocket borough rally — a milling churn of the PC’s blue flags in Handwara’s Chinar Park — he throws the issue for an impromptu referendum.

“Tell me, did I commit a mistake by meeting Narendra Modi?” he cries out.

“Noooooo!” the crowd responds. “Tell me,” he asks again, as if to push the point home once and for all, “if I want to bring development for you, should I not be meeting the Prime Minister of India?”

This time the endorsement rings louder around the congregation: “Yeaasssss!”

Between a “No” and a “Yes”, Sajjad has turned what would classically have been a fatal allegation against him into a working asset — a man who could use his truck with Modi to fetch deliverables to this deprived remoteness.

So, is fringe ex-separatist to enthroned nationalist the emerging power axis in Jammu and Kashmir, the propulsion force for the BJP’s “Mission 44+”?

As I wait to meet Sajjad and put the question to him, one of his poll managers whispers to me in the excited hubbub of the PC’s Handwara camp office.

“All along the Abdullahs and the Muftis have monopolised power by playing proxy franchisees of Delhi; we thought why shouldn’t we establish a direct link? What’s wrong with that? Everyone in Kashmir has to deal with the powers in Delhi,” the poll manager said.

Deal? Is that the word? Is he in a deal with Modi? Sajjad turns affronted at the suggestion, almost as if he has been told he is the BJP’s fifth column masquerading Kashmiri aspiration.

“Why must there be a deal? I have done nothing secret, I met Modi openly and spoke openly about it. Yes I do say good things about him because he behaved like an understanding elder, he did not punch me in the face.”

The burden of his campaign song is the same as Narendra Modi’s, though — rid Kashmir of the Abdullahs and Muftis, usher change.

“But of course,” Sajjad agrees, “we have to save Kashmir from the dynasties and their pampered children who have no connect with the people, can’t see their needs. We need change, change is our slogan.”

People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone meets supporters at his Handwara camp office before setting off on the campaign trail.

People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone meets supporters at his Handwara camp office before setting off on the campaign trail.

It is the last day of the campaign in the Kupwara-Handwara belt; Sajjad is battling fatigue and a besetting cold. He’s also weary of insinuation by rivals that he’s shaken hands with the devil, those that are sworn to abrogating Article 370 and undermining Kashmir’s special status.

“Look, I have gone hoarse telling people I have made no compromises. My stand on Article 370 is that it has to be strengthened. I want to represent my people, not their enemies.”

Sajjad sits on one of two mattresses thrown on a carpeted wooden floor; it’s where he and Asma have lived the better part of the campaign, a bare room in an unplastered outhouse in midtown Handwara.

A pewter samovar keeps out the cold, and an armed sentry holds zealous audience-seekers at the door; every now and then someone manages to land a knock and is counselled patience.

But the palaver over his meeting with Modi isn’t as easily managed, it drifts in unfettered: Sajjad has sold out.

“Where have I sold out, tell me?” he retorts to the charge both Omar and the Mufti have made.

“They won’t even stop at smearing my wife; doesn’t she have the right to campaign for her husband? If I met Modi, it was to seek development for my people. He can do things no government in Kashmir has bothered doing: just go around and see how backward and poor this region is. No roads, no hospitals, no colleges, no jobs, people eke out a subsistence life, and nobody has bothered. If I ask Modi and he says ‘Yes’, is that a crime?”

North Kashmir is a land of benighted beauty, overlaid with pristine valleys and meadows — Lolab, Nowgam, Bangus, Reshwani, each possessed of distinct seductions but none even a scratch on Kashmir’s crowded tourist map.

What is more striking and in-the-face everywhere you go is insufficiency and abandonment, a beauteous duckling scarred to ugliness by poverty.

For far too long, militancy held this patch hostage. For far too long, it also remained overlooked by the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, whose political home ground lies south of here.

Now, of a sudden, Sajjad has emerged from decades of the PC’s commitment to separatism, to champion corrections. Is there a real prospect he can? It’s five north Kashmir seats his bets really are on — Handwara, Kupwara, Karna, Langate and Lolab.

Chance would be a fine thing if he can wrest even half those. What is a man able to do with fewer numbers in an 87-member Assembly than you can count on fingers of a single palm?

“I am not deluded about what I can or cannot do,” Sajjad says, disarmingly honest. “I know my limitations, but I also know my strengths. What I have in mind for north Kashmir no state government has the power to provide, it’s only New Delhi that can do it. And there I have placed my demands and been heard.”

In knocking at Modi’s door, Sajjad may well have played at a meditated paradox; oftentimes, opposites attract.

Handwara-Kupwara votes on December 2

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