A Facebook message, a Scorpio SUV, three colleagues and a loudspeaker - these are all the paraphernalia Engineer Rashid is using for his election campaign. The politician who is fighting as an independent may emerge as an underdog in Jammu and Kashmir's Baramulla-Kupwara parliamentary constituency, say sources.
Soon after a Facebook message announced his arrival, the two-time former legislator reached Kalaroos village in Kupwara. Suddenly, hundreds of people came out of their homes and shops to listen to him. Mr Rashid, with his simple style of campaigning in north Kashmir areas, is drawing large crowds at his rallies. Despite fear of terror attacks during elections, he said he has decided not to take any security protection.
Mr Rashid uses the "common man" image and moving without any security cover to connect with voters in hard-to-reach villages where other politicians find it difficult to go. He also carries out night campaigning, which is unheard of in Jammu and Kashmir because of fear of terror attacks.
"My people are my best protection. I campaign everywhere without any security cover. Other politicians rule people under the barrel of a gun. I am ruling the hearts of people," said Mr Rashid.
He said no one feels safe in the state, and even the convoys of security forces had to be protected by banning civilian traffic on highways. "If security forces are not safe then what difference will it make if I have security cover? I am living among people," he said.
The Baramulla-Kupwara constituency will see a multi-cornered contest. The National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and the People Conference are the main parties that have strong pockets of support in north Kashmir. But Mr Rashid is single-handedly holding more public meetings than any of these parties.
With three lakh followers on Facebook, Mr Rashid is effectively using social media for his campaign and even live-streaming his speeches. "I am attending over 30 election meetings every day. I start early in the morning and end campaigning late night," he said.
He is also trying to crowd-fund his campaign expenses. He said no one took him seriously in the early stage. But as bigger parties are making last-ditch efforts to woo voters before the national elections starting Thursday, Mr Rashid has emerged a challenge to regional parties.
"We feel he is our main challenger," said a senior National Conference leader who asked not to be named. He said the campaign carried out by Mr Rashid will ensure more people come out to vote. "It will help us as well. When boycott happens, our supporters also stay away from voting. If Rashid's supporters come out and vote in large numbers, our supporters will also come out and vote," the National Conference leader said.
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