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Biting the ballot

In the 2008 assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP had very little to debate in the valley. The party barely showed its presence and relied primarily on a little bit of Islam, some nationalism, and a large dose of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2014 12:27 IST
Toufiq Rashid
Toufiq Rashid
Hindustan Times

In the 2008 assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP had very little to debate in the valley. The party barely showed its presence and relied primarily on a little bit of Islam, some nationalism, and a large dose of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Slogans like ‘Nareye Takbeer, Allah Ho Akbar’ (Say he is the greatest, Allah is the greatest) were heard at every rally or workers’ meeting. Candidates reiterated their Muslim credentials before talking about the party’s Kashmir agenda.

Still, the party managed only 11 out of 36 seats in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region; the valley remained a “no show” .

Cut to 2014. After scoring a thumping victory in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP is “all set to win” the state assembly elections scheduled for this winter. The largest number of the seats in the state assembly (46), remain with the Muslim-majority Valley, while Jammu has 37 and Ladakh has only four. The party is hopeful of performing better in Jammu and the Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, but the Valley will be a priority in its mission to win 44 seats. This number is important to have an all-BJP government — which would be a first in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The party has a two pronged strategy — consolidating the non-Muslim votes and banking on the prospect of voter absence in the Valley. In the Kashmir Valley, the party is focussing on five seats — Amira Kadal and Habba Kadal seats in Srinagar, Sopore in Baramulla, and the Anantnag and Tral seats in south Kashmir. As Kashmir’s urban pockets remain averse to polling, the BJP’s think- tank is focussing on these seats because a higher number of migrant voters are registered here.

Interestingly, unlike other mainstream political parties, the BJP’s Kashmir plan does not include a "good voter turnout." The voter percentage in these seats has remained dismal. In the Lok Sabha elections, Srinagar witnessed less than 20 percent voting (Srinagar-Budgam witnessed 26 percent), South Kashmir registered around 28 percent voting and Sopore, a mere three to four percent.

A BJP insider who did not want to be named confirmed that the first task for the party was to identify the Kashmiri Pandit voters and then get them to register themselves. The BJP equation is favoured by the fact that the separatist bastions have hardly seen any voters in consecutive elections since 1996. Even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, only 5 percent of people came out to vote. In certain parts such as those around Seer Jagir — parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s native place — the poll percentage was zero.

“BJP’s fortunes in the valley will depend on how successful the separatist boycott call is in the areas that they have earmarked,” said political analyst Noor Ahmad Baba. As part of their backup plan, the BJP is trying to nudge out influential politicians who have traditionally been winning the seats. Insiders say many senior politicans, including a former separatist leader, have been approached. Hina Bhat, 35 a trained dentist, was one of the first prominent names to join the Kashmir unit of BJP. Bhat is the daughter of former NC leader Muhammad Shafi Bhat, a former MLA of the NC from the Amirakdal constituency of Srinagar. However, he switched to the Congress after being denied a ticket in 2008. Migrant Kashmir Pandits remain “the focus”, Bhat said. However, those who didn’t leave are feeling ignored. “Right now, unemployment is fuelling migration, not violence. We expect the new government to come up with a policy in black and white on problems faced by local Pandits,” said Srinagar-based Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti.

Local Muslims also have not struck a cord with the party. “The BJP doesn’t care about us. We are not their vote bank anyway. It seems the rulers have taken over Delhi and are looking at expanding their empire in Kashmir,’’ said Imtiaz (name changed), a buisnessman working in Srinagar. The “Modi wave” has left Kashmir untouched. “The fact that even as the PM candidate, Modi chose to come to Jammu and skipped Kashmir speaks volumes,’’ said Sara Ahmad, a University student from North Kashmir.

Meanwhile, political parties in the Valley see BJP’s efforts as a “way of harvesting the communal vote”. “No political party has ever done that here. The post-election scenario will be very challenging; the sentiment is going to be communal as the entire narrative in the elections is communal,” said PDP spokesperson Nayeem Akhtar. The ruling National Conference witnessed a crushing defeat is accusing the BJP of “pursuing boycott politics”.

The separatists, however, claim that they are “unnerved” by BJP’s advances. Hardline Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Geelani’s unity call for, what he describes as “extraordinary times”, has invoked positive response from moderate separatists, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. “Fanatic and communal minded people will make extraordinary efforts to convert Muslims into a minority,” claimed Geelani, while asking separatists to be united.

In Jammu, the political narrative runs counter to the Kashmir region; here the BJP derives its strength from issues such as abrogation of Art 370. For many years, the Congress, which some analysts sfeel can’t be “written-off” completely, had catered to the aspirations of Jammu, but not anymore. Now, the BJP is nurturing and kindling the sense of discrimination — perceived or real — over there. “If the BJP provides development-oriented clean governance and treats all communities equally, things could change,” said Mansi Sangra, a school teacher in Jammu.

According to Professor Baba, managing a sweep of all 40 seats in the two regions seems impossible. The Muslim majority regions in Jammu might not look at BJP as an option, he added. “But the danger in all this is that for the first time, voting in the state might be along communal lines.’’

(With Inputs from Peerzada Ashiq in Srinagar and Tarun Upadhyay in Jammu)