BJP fighting Lok Sabha polls in Kashmir through proxies: Omar Abdullah | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

BJP fighting Lok Sabha polls in Kashmir through proxies: Omar Abdullah

May 07, 2024 12:47 PM IST

Omar Abdullah said he is categorical in his assertion that the BJP is part of the Lok Sabha election process in Kashmir behind the scenes

The 2024 Lok Sabha election is the first major electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) since the region was stripped of its semi-autonomous status with the nullification of the Constitution’s Article 370 in 2019. The assembly election in the region, which has been without an elected government since 2018, is also expected to be held as per the Supreme Court’s directions this year. On the campaign trail, former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah, 54, who is the National Conference (NC) Lok Sabha candidate from the Baramulla constituency, spoke to HT about the elections, the nullification of Article 370, etc. Edited excerpts:

Former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah. (X)
Former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah. (X)

The Lok Sabha election, the first since the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, appears to be normal in Kashmir with no looming militant threats and poll boycott calls. How do you look at this?

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In the past, the normal aspect of Kashmir elections did not get the focus it should have. In 2013, the panchayat elections we held, the turnouts in many parts were as high as 80%. But mainstream media has been happier focussing on areas with low voting such as downtown Srinagar or Sopore. Otherwise, in terms of party workers’ enthusiasm, it is not a new thing for us. ...people across the Valley...have not had a chance to be heard and express a view on anything, particularly what was done to them on August 5, 2019 [nullification of Article 370). What you see is angst related to that which is now boiling over on the surface.

The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government attributes this change to the nullification of Article 370...

If that is true, where are the BJP candidates in Kashmir? Why have they chosen not to contest any of the three Lok Sabha seats here? If all this change is because of what the BJP did, then why are they not able to sell it to the people? Why does the BJP even now say that “we are in no hurry to fight elections, that we will first win the hearts of the people?... That means you have not won the hearts of people yet. That is why the mood you see here is not attributable to the steps the BJP has taken. This is despite what the BJP did, not because of what it did.

What do you make of the BJP’s decision to not contest in Kashmir?

It is surprising. I can understand if they had not contested in the Valley before. But, they contested all three seats in 2019. Then, why not in 2024? The reason is much deeper than what it looks. One part is the absence of any support for them on the ground here. It is also the fact that putting up Muslim candidates here will make their anti-Muslim stance in the rest of the country a little difficult to sell. And, you cannot put non-Muslim candidates in the overwhelmingly Muslim majority seats in Kashmir. Also, if my information is correct, there is not a single Muslim candidate fighting on the BJP tickets anywhere in the country today.

You are hinting in your election rallies that the BJP is supporting candidates of other parties in Kashmir...

I am categorical in my assertion that the BJP may not have a symbol in this election, but make no mistake they are very much part of the election process just from behind the scenes. They are propping up their proxies wherever they can. Otherwise, where was the need for the BJP’s J&K president to come to north Kashmir and tell his workers that “we will let you know in a few days as to whom to support”. In the south Kashmir seat, influential Pahari leaders from Poonch have announced the BJP support to Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This election has been good because it has unmasked all the BJP proxies.

Who are these proxies?

They are the parties fighting against the NC and its ally, the Congress. In the Udhampur seat, Ghulam Nabi Azad put up a candidate to divide the votes in the Chenab Valley region, the benefit of which will go to the BJP. Similarly, this whole move to forge an artificial alliance between the People’s Conference of Sajjad Lone and the Apni Party led by Altaf Bukhari. Look at the disdain they have for each other. No lesser a person than the general secretary of the People’s Conference, Imran Ansari, had called Altaf a seller of fake pesticides and that ‘ye do number ka aadmi hai’. This is on record. Why is now Imran looking for Altaf’s support for Sajjad’s victory against me from the Baramulla seat? This is at the behest of the establishment and the BJP. Everyone who has some connection to the intelligence agencies, the army or the home ministry is aligned today to defeat the NC.

But Lone categorically says he has nothing to do with the BJP...

Then why did the BJP try to make him chief minister of J&K in 2018 after calling off its alliance with PDP? He has not disowned the BJP’s letter of support. It is a matter of public record. I have the courage of conviction to say that I was part of the National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Why is Sajjad fighting shy of admitting what we know as a fact?

What is your sense of the overall electoral landscape?

We are fighting this election, perhaps not blind, but with a slightly hazy view. That is on account of the delimitation. There is not a single assembly constituency that has not been tinkered with. A sort of gerrymandering was done to benefit the BJP and its allies including Sajjad Lone.

Both NC and PDP are in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) but are pitted against each other in Kashmir and are supporting the Congress in Jammu and Udhampur seats. How do explain this?

As far as NC is concerned, the INDIA grouping is intact. It is the PDP that moved away out of self-interest. This is not a situation of our making. PDP decided to field their candidates, and so be it. What can we do?

But Mehbooba Mufti blames you, saying your ambition and arrogance stalled the NC-PDP seat-sharing pact...

That is very easy to say. NC has been at the front and center of relentless attacks from the stage of PDP. Her [Mufti] daughter who doubles up as her social media manager has been vitriolic. Why did not she put a stop to that? She [Mufti] said at the INDIA bloc meeting in Mumbai that whatever decision Farooq Abdullah takes on seat sharing will be acceptable to PDP. ...taking the 2019 parliamentary elections as the yardstick, he decided three seats for NC and an equal number for other INDIA bloc members. And if Congress was unable to accommodate PDP in its share, how is that my arrogance? But, PDP wanted to have the cake and eat too.

What is your main poll plan?

It is largely centered around what happened on August 5, 2019, and how the state was cheated and disempowered. Identity is an important issue...what people here are going through. There is a genuine worry that over time, characteristics of J&K will be altered.

That has not happened in the last four years...

How can you say that? Look at the number of voters from outside who have been added. For the first time, we have a candidate from mainland India contesting Lok Sabha elections in J&K. This is only the beginning. Look at the prolonged agitation over fear of losing identity, land, and jobs in Ladakh. Ultimately, J&K and Ladakh were born as UTs [Union territories] from the same womb on the same day. We have as much fear as they do.

Is Article 370 still a poll issue after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of its abrogation? Are not you flogging a dead horse?

When the Supreme Court upheld Article 370 in three previous judgments, was the BJP flogging a dead horse?

But Kashmir seems to have moved on...

If it has, then all three NC candidates deserve to lose this election. Let us see.

Why should the people of J&K vote for NC?

Because not voting for NC has cost J&K dearly. Had the NC not been voted out of power in 2014, or 2019 (nullification of Article 370) would not have happened. We would not have surrendered the interests of J&K. People have realised all that and will favour us. This election is a semi-final before the assembly polls months later.

After three phases of polling, what is your reading of the national election scene?

One thing is certain it is pretty much a waveless election. There is no wave either for the government or against it. There does not seem to be any great enthusiasm, particularly among the BJP cadres. You do not see as much of the sort of hardcore jubilation that was seen in Prime Minister’s rallies in 2014 and even 2019. You see the turnouts... they are lower across the board. That also reflects that there is nothing a big factor pushing the people to polling booths.

After the Congress loss in the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in December, you said that all is not well with the INDIA bloc. What has changed since then?

I did not expect the bloc to firm up the seat-sharing pacts that they were eventually able to. I was extremely sceptical about whether we will have anything meaningful on the ground in UP [Uttar Pradesh]. But, UP worked out. So did the Congress-AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] deal in Delhi though they could not manage Punjab. The only state where they could not forge seat sharing is West Bengal. If Mamata [Banerjee] is confident that she fight the BJP on her own, that is fine. At the end of the day, it is the seats that matter.

The BJP has called it a “Modi versus who” contest as the INDIA bloc has not projected a Prime Ministerial face...

We have seen this before. Hubris among politicians is dangerous. If arrogance of power seeps into the BJP to such a great extent, they will only have themselves to blame for any reversal or setback.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly targeted the dynastic parties of J&K including NC, blaming them for misrule of the past...

The BJP is as guilty of dynastic politics as any other party. If I am not mistaken, one-fifth of tickets the BJP’s mandates in this election have gone to family members of its leaders. Look at how they dropped the tainted [former] Wrestling Federation of India fellow Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh but gave the ticket to his son. Their problem is with only those dynastic parties who oppose the BJP.

How do you respond to Modi’s key poll narrative of accusing the Congress of Muslim appeasement, saying it plans to divert the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota to Muslims?

I am the last person to support the politics of appeasement. But, the problem with the BJP is that to show that they are not appeasing the Muslims, they are going the other way. They are victimising the community. They are denying the community its rightful claim. Is it not a matter of significant shame that 14% of the country’s population is represented by the ruling party neither in the Lok Sabha nor in the Rajya Sabha? The Modi Cabinet did not have a Muslim face all these years. Look at the Sachar Committee report or any assessment of the economic plight of Muslims, where have they got more than their fair share? Show me how you can claim that the Muslims have been appeased at the cost of any other community. We [Muslims] are possibly the most downtrodden and economically disadvantaged community in the country.

As a prominent leader from the country’s only Muslim-majority region, do you see a case for a Muslim quota?

There is a case for a quota for the economically disadvantaged within the Muslim community. I am against a blanket quota for all. But poor Muslims need to be uplifted.

How is this Lok Sabha election important given the J&K assembly polls expected to be held later this year?

This is the first election after the delimitation of constituencies. We do not know what the voting patterns are going to be like. To that extent, these elections are a test for our organisation, and a learning process for political parties and workers.

You have said that you will not contest the assembly polls until the statehood is restored...

I stand by that. I am not here to make a fool of the people of Baramulla. I look forward to representing them in the Parliament for the foreseeable future. The assembly polls here are likely two months after the Lok Sabha elections. I do not expect the statehood to be restored before the assembly elections

What role do you see for your father Farooq Abdullah?

He is the glue that binds us together. He is the force that keeps us going. His role remains vital to NC and the wider politics of J&K.

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    A journalist of over 35 years standing, Ramesh Vinayak is Executive Editor of Hindustan Times at Chandigarh He specialises in covering the north Indian territory of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, besides the Punjabi diaspora.

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