Jammu and Kashmir: A case of hit-and-run?

Why is the BJP missing from the crucial elections in the Kashmir Valley?

Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi of INDIA bloc files his nomination in Srinagar constituency on 25 April
Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi of INDIA bloc files his nomination in Srinagar constituency on 25 April

Rashme Sehgal

The ongoing Lok Sabha elections are of crucial importance for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. For one, these general elections are being held after the abrogation of Article 370. This was followed by a delimitation exercise most Kashmiris believe was undertaken to favour the BJP’s core constituency of Jammu.

As if this demographic engineering were not enough, the BJP also tried hard to woo different communities including the Pahari Muslims, who have been granted Scheduled tribes (ST) status this year.

With everything going so well for the BJP, why then has it not put up a single candidate in the three constituencies of Anantnag–Rajouri, Baramulla and Srinagar (the two latter going to the polls on 13 May, the former on 26 May)? Is this withdrawal a reality check for a party that did not hesitate to downgrade J&K’s statehood and strip it of its special status?

The delimitation exercise has met with tremendous criticism even from the local populace. The tagging together of two geographically and ethnically disparate cultural units of Rajouri and Anantnag in this newly drawn Parliamentary constituency has upset the voters of Rajouri and Poonch districts (with a population of 11.2 lakh) while Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam districts have a total population of 17.7 lakh according to the 2011 Census.

There seems little room for mainstream political discourse in a region where elections continue to be fought over issues of identity and special status. The BJP chose to beat a hasty retreat and decided to score through its proxies.

The first shock they received was when one of their proxies, Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) candidate Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former chief minister of J&K, chose to withdraw his candidature from the Anantnag–Rajouri seat in which he was pitted against another former CM — Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) and veteran NC (National Conference) leader Mian Altaf Ahmed.

The BJP has now laid its bets on the JKAP (Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party) Pahari candidate Zaffar Iqbal Manhas with the hope that he will be able to consolidate the Muslim Pahari vote, which seems unlikely. Apni Party was founded by Altaf Bukhari in 2019 and he makes no attempt to hide his admiration for the prime minister.

But even the best laid plans are known to go awry. Murtaza Ahmed Khan, a Pahari leader from Pir Panjal who recently rejoined the PDP pointed out, “We were grateful to the BJP for having conceded to our long pending demand of reservation for our community and would have lent our support if the saffron party had put up their own candidate. But we are not willing to support their proxies. The BJP made a tactical mistake by not putting up a candidate,” said Khan.

Since the BJP chose not to field any candidate, the JKAP fielded Manhas, ostensibly to consolidate the Pahari vote bank. The million-strong linguistic minority was granted Scheduled Tribe status by the Centre early this year.

Sajjad Gani Lone of the People’s Conference has not fielded any candidate for the Anantnag–Rajouri seat and is conserving his energies to contest for North Kashmir’s Baramulla seat, where another former chief minister Omar Abdullah is directly pitted against him. Apni Party has not put up a candidate here.

The stakes are high for both Abdullah and Lone as their political survival depends on wresting this crucial seat. Lone, who has often been accused of being part of the ‘B Team’ of the Modi government, does not hesitate to hit out at his political adversaries, Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

“These two families have been at the helm most of the time,” Lone points out, adding that mainstream political parties have willingly sided with the BJP when it suited them.

“Mehbooba was with them for three years. Omar received his baptism in politics when he was made the poster boy of the NDA under the leadership of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Today, they are calling me names but tomorrow these same parties will not hesitate to join hands with the BJP for power. Politics is the art of the possible and we cannot have a situation where there are different rules for different people,” Lone said to this reporter, in an earlier interview.

Abdullah, on the other hand, insists that the BJP symbol will not be on the machine but the party remains very much part of the political electoral process.

Mehbooba Mufti knows she is facing a tough fight from the NC’s Mian Altaf Ahmed. Both Mufti and Abdullah are part of the INDIA bloc and she had hoped the latter would not field a candidate in her constituency so that they could put up a united fight against the BJP. This did not happen.

In all her election speeches, Mufti makes it clear that unlike mainstream politicians, she is not asking for votes on ‘bijli, sadak and pani (electricity, roads and water)’; rather her campaign is focused on unity, demographics and employment. “I am seeking votes for our identity, our land, our jobs,” she says.

The Srinagar constituency will see a tough fight between Shia cleric Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi and PDP’s Waheed Para. This is an area which has been plagued by militancy for the last decade and the resurgence of democratic processes has sent out positive signals for a more politically active future. Both Omar and his father Farooq have been holding rallies across different pockets of Srinagar, a traditional vote bank for the NC while Para, who has a strong presence on social media, has focused on holding street meetings.

The BJP has contested only two seats in its traditional bastion of Jammu and Udhampur. The Congress, which used to be a dominant player in the Jammu region, lost ground to the BJP after the 2008 Amarnath land agitation.

Political analyst and editor Zafar Choudhary pointed out, “Rising from the lows and recovering from the mass exodus of the recent years, the Congress has been able to draw the BJP into a close contest on both these seats. On the Udhampur seat, the BJP received 62 per cent of polled votes in 2019 against 31 per cent by the Congress. Similarly, in the Jammu seat, the BJP vote share was 57 per cent against the Congress’s 25 per cent. But this time, it is a neck-and-neck contest.”

Jammu Congress leader Ravinder Sharma believes the people of Jammu have not gained from the removal of Article 370. “The people here have received no benefits. No new industries have been set up and there are no employment avenues for the youth. Sixty per cent of the industries in our region are sick and need to be revived. There has been no initiative from Srinagar or New Delhi to give them a fresh lease of life,” he said.

Polls for the Anantnag–Rajouri seat were postponed from 7 May to 23 May. Several political parties including the BJP, Apni Party, People’s Conference and DPAP had petitioned the Election Commission asking for a postponement in voting as bad weather and landslides had forced them to delay campaigning.

The PDP and the NC had rubbished these claims, pointing out that Mughal Road had remained open despite bad weather. Like everything that happens in the Valley, this was seen as a conspiracy designed to suit the BJP, which had hoped the EC would have asked for fresh filing by candidates.

These Lok Sabha elections will clearly indicate which way the wind is blowing, and act as a curtain-raiser for the much awaited Assembly elections which must be held before September 2024 as ordered by the Supreme Court.

The overriding impulse in the Valley is to have political power restored where it belongs — to the people of J&K.

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