BJP’s ‘Azad Card’ in Jammu
Secular Azad will end up dividing the anti-BJP votes in Jammu and Kargil, which suits the BJP
Political pundits believe that while BJP will find it difficult to win even a single seat from the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, it is eyeing a repeat of 2014 in the Jammu division.
It was the Hindu-dominated Jammu division where BJP won all the 25 seats in 2014 and staked claim to form the government in J&K for the first time. With Ghulam Nabi Azad declaring that he would be launching a regional party in J&K, there is renewed hope in the BJP.
Following the reading down of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, the BJP was successful in discrediting its former coalition partner, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), to an extent. But the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) turned out to be a tougher nut to crack. Unlike other regional parties, JKNC has a strong cadre in the Valley as well as in Jammu and Ladakh divisions.
Senior lawyer and political analyst Asim Hashmi from Pir Panjal told the National Herald, “While PDP was substantially marginalised, the National Conference took over everything in the constituencies, blocks and districts. Despite detention and arrests of leaders and considerable harassment, the JKNC remains intact. Farooq Abdullah is deeply hurt at the developments and is a wounded man.”
The Scheduled Castes (SC) population in the Jammu division still recall the founding father of JKNC, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, for his land-to-tiller policy. “How can our community betray the NC? It is the NC that gave us land which in return gave us recognition,” one of them from Doda told the National Herald.
Since 2019, the BJP-led central government has been delaying assembly elections on one pretext or the other. “BJP knows that large number of people in Jammu will never vote for them again. They know that they will lose in their so-called strong bastions like the districts of Jammu, Kishtwar and Udhampur. That is the main reason why they have been delaying the election in J&K,” says Rattan Lal Gupta, provincial president of the NC in Jammu.
A survey done in October 2021 by a BJP backed television channel of Jammu found that over 66% of the respondents believed that only regional parties could safeguard the interests of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The channel’s ‘Mood of the State’ survey revealed that 33.8% believed Farooq Abdullah could be an effective chief minister followed by Ghulam Nabi Azad (25%), Jitendra Singh (11.5%), Mehbooba Mufti (9.1%) and Altaf Bukhari (3%).
Azad was still with the Congress when the survey took place.
The channel claimed that the survey covered 62,000 respondents across Jammu and Kashmir, covering all important constituencies.
At least nine seats in the Jammu division are dominated by Muslims, and BJP is unlikely to win any of these seats (03 in Poonch; 02 in Rajouri; 01 in Banihal; 01 in Mahore; 01 in Doda and 01 in Inderwal). In several other constituencies in the Jammu Division, Muslims and liberal-secular Hindus together constitute a majority of the population. These constituencies are Doda West; Baderwah; Kishtwar; Ramban and Kalakote/Nowshera. Even in the 2014 legislative assembly election, BJP did not do too well on these seats.
Now with Ghulam Nabi Azad quitting the Congress and forming his own political outfit, BJP hopes to benefit from the expected split in the Muslim-liberal votes and increase its margin of victory on the seats it had won in the last election.
“Chances of the BJP winning these seats has brightened in anticipation that the Azad-led group will put up its candidates in these constituencies. His candidates will split Muslim votes like what we saw in Deoband constituency in Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 election,” says Advocate Asim Hashmi.
Even BJP supporters are disenchanted with the party’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir and at the national level. “Azad’s exit, which many of us believe is with BJP’s blessings, has given a new lease of life to BJP in the Jammu division, which includes Pir Panchal as well,” he said.
A National Conference (NC) worker in Doda said that they fear BJP will come back again to power after Azad quitting the Congress. “Muslim and secular votes will get split. This was the time for the opposition to stand united and not get divided. Azad will wreak havoc in not just J&K but nationally too,” he felt.
The NC also has a strong base in Pir Panchal range which includes the districts of Poonch, Rajouri and the Chenab valley. In Pir Panchal areas like Raman, Kishtwar and Doda, the NC has its own DDC members. In Rajouri district most of the DDCs are controlled by the National Conference. In Poonch, the NC and Congress had a joint candidate for the DDC chairman. In Reasi, the DDC Vice Chairman belongs to the NC.
As anti-incumbency is strong in all six districts of the Jammu division, the Congress was the only party that could have defeated them (BJP) in these assembly segments. “NC could have given outside support to Congress. However, it has now become a win-win situation for BJP after Azad resigned. They could not have won in Jammu either had Azad not resigned,” says Rattan Lal Gupta.
If Azad does not act as a spoiler and does not put up his candidates, as he claims to be fighting for a secular ethos, then NC/ Congress will defeat the BJP easily. “We have done it in the past and we can do it this time too,” he said.
Meanwhile, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) spokesperson Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami denied extending any invitation to Ghulam Nabi Azad to join the alliance. “He (Azad) is yet to open his cards, policy and agenda. J&K has a lot of political issues, Azad sahab has not yet said anything in public about where he stands on these issues. Once he clarifies where he stands, we will send him the invitation to join us. If for J&K’s sake, PAGD can take Shiv Sena along, why can’t Azad sahab join us?” Tarigami said.
PAGD is yet to decide its electoral strategy although NC has indicated that it could contest all seats on its own. “Elections are a part of our larger struggle. The actual struggle is to restore the constitutional rights of the people that were snatched from us on August 05, 2019,” Tarigami told National Herald.
Ghulam Nabi Azad’s decision to quit the Congress has come as no surprise in the state. There is recognition of the fact that the ‘Azad factor’ is a trump card with the BJP in the Pir Panchal range and Jammu division, though it is still not clear how and when they will use this card.