SRINAGAR: Minutes after the sun goes down behind the snow-capped mountain peaks, small groups of masked men surface in some areas of Srinagar.
They wait for a signal from gun-wielding security men that there are no militants around and then proceed with their job, quickly selecting spots to raise little flags an buntings of the political parties they support in the forthcoming Lok Sabha Lok Sabha elections.
They then quickly melt back into the night.
These masked men, one does not know whether they are volunteers or are paid, are defying a ban on campaigning and voting issued by secessionist militants in Jammu and Kashmir. Campaigners and voters have been threatened with death if they exercise their franchise.
The two principal political parties for whom campaigning in this fashion is on for the prestigious Srinagar seat, and in two other Valley constituencies - Anantnag and Baramulla - are the ruling National Conference and the Congress.
People here get the feeling of the first time in many years that political parties are really preparing to fight an election in Srinagar, and are making their presence felt despite all odds.
The NC dominates the scene as far as the hoisting of flags and other election material to draw attention is concerned. The Congress comes second.
Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's daughter Mehbooba Mufti, though far ahead of others in pulling spontaneous crowds, stands nowhere in this promotion war.
The BJP presence, so far, is felt only outside its main election office at Baghat where little party flags criss-cross the main road. The BJP office was attacked by militants last week but there were no casualties.
In some places, colorful posters of Kashmir's tallest leader, Sheikh Abdullah, and his son and successor, Dr Farooq Abdullah, are found pasted on walls and electric polls. Written in Urdu, these posters promise "peace, stability and greater autonomy" for the state if people vote in favour of the scion of the Sheikh family - Omar Farooq - seeking re-election from Srinagar, and other NC candidates elsewhere. On the other hand, Congress posters, also in Urdu and with pictures of party president Sonia Gandhi with folded hands, urge people to vote for the Congress for a "a stable, credible and lasting government."
Their rivals, who obviously cannot match the NC or Congress publicity blitz, accuse them of violating the Election Commission directive on the matter.
Occasionally, the posters are torn off or disfigured by youngsters.
All the contestants have requisitioned jeeps, Tata Sumos and mini buses and use them to broadcast election songs and slogans, but one or two armed guards always go along to protect the activists. Despite the guards, a People's Democratic Party vehicle was ambushed by militants on Sunday, and one person was killed.
Ms Mehbooba Mufti prefers door-to-door campaigning. Her supporters distribute leaflets carrying the PDP line that the Farooq Abdullah government has failed to give them an hones, working government and peace is still a distant dream. Ms Mehbooba Mufti and her father insist that holding of open talks with secessionists is a must for the restoration of peace in Kashmir.
To counter her charisma, the NC is trying to explain the Mufti's "discrepancies" and "dubious character" to as many people as possible. the NC is also distributing copies of its manifesto and booklet titled "Sardari Awam Ka Haq Hai."
The scene in the rest of the Valley is no different, except that the people in rural areas are showing a lot of interest in listening to the politicians who come seeking their vote. However, in the countryside, particularly in Kupwara, campaigning does involve high risks.
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