BJP’s Mission Impossible

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On 25 August, when BJP president Amit Shah arrived in Jammu to begin work on his ambitious Mission Kashmir, the already noisy winter capital of the state acquired some more buzz. Amid loud sloganeering, a long convoy of vehicles accompanied by a massive procession of supporters escorted Shah to the State Guest House, where he immediately got into a huddle with local BJP MLAs to discuss the party’s poll strategy.

But 300 km away in Srinagar, the summer capital, the development was watched with a growing sense of unease. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said that the National Conference had the political strength to stop the BJP’s juggernaut in the state. “Abki baari Kashmir ki baari nahi hogi (This time, it won’t be Kashmir’s turn). The BJP stays till Delhi only,” Omar said. But leaders of the PDP, the party that has emerged as the favourite to win the forthcoming Assembly polls, didn’t utter a word, nor did the smaller parties like the People’s Conference led by the former separatist Sajjad Gani Lone.

Shah’s strategy for J&K is well-known and has been put into action since the BJP won three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2014 General Election, with a leading position in 27 of the 41 Assembly segments. The party is aiming at a clear majority of 44 seats in the 87-member Assembly. And it expects to achieve this by sweeping all 37 seats in Jammu and four seats in Ladakh, besides a windfall of a few seats in the Valley.

In this plan, the BJP is up against the PDP, which looks to bag a majority of the 46 seats in the Valley, two in Ladakh and another 10 seats in the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu like Rajouri, Poonch and the Chenab Valley.

The ruling National Conference and the Congress have made their own calculations, but their respective campaigns are weighed down by a strong anti-incumbency sentiment and allegations of endemic corruption and misgovernance.

This has made the PDP and the BJP the two major players on the scene. But while the PDP’s bid is backed by its growing support base in the Valley and parts of Jammu, the BJP is banking on a consolidation of the Hindu vote bank plus a play of some incidental political factors to its favour — one of them being the division of the Muslim votes along sectarian (Shia and Sunni) and ethnic (Gujjar, Pahari and Kashmiri) lines.

Shah’s strategy, however, flies in the face of the state’s demographics, which make J&K India’s only Muslim-majority state and, therefore, in large measure inherently averse to the BJP’s appeal. According to Census 2011, Muslims comprise 67 percent of J&K’s population, while Hindus constitute 30 percent, Sikhs, 2 percent, and Buddhists, a little more than 1 percent.

But broken down into the state’s three regions, a different picture emerges. Kashmir’s population of around 55 lakh — the largest among the three regions — is 97 percent Muslim, with the remaining 3 percent comprising Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs. In contrast, Jammu’s population of more than 44 lakh comprises 65 percent Hindus, 31 percent Muslims and 4 percent Sikhs. And Ladakh’s population of more than 2 lakh is more or less evenly split between Buddhists (45.8 percent) and Muslims (47.4 percent), with Hindus comprising the remaining 6 percent.

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The BJP has set its sights on Jammu’s 37 Assembly seats. But the reality on the ground will hardly allow the party a walk-over, polarisation notwithstanding. The 30 percent Muslim vote in Jammu is concentrated in six of Jammu’s 10 districts and there are around 17 Assembly segments with a Muslim majority. This poses a serious dilemma for the BJP. It hopes to win these seats by mobilising the Hindu votes and expecting the Muslim votes to split up among the NC, the PDP and the Congress. And it can win the 20 Hindu majority seats in the province, provided the Congress doesn’t encroach into its Hindu vote bank. As a result, voting in Jammu will be a complex play of contingent factors.

The BJP is also targeting the four seats in Ladakh, two of them with a Buddhist majority and two dominated by Muslims.

This leaves Kashmir, where the party hopes to use the separatist poll boycott to its advantage. In a few constituencies in downtown Srinagar like Habba Kadal and Amira Kadal and the urban areas of North and South Kashmir like Sopore and Tral, respectively, which witness the maximum boycott, the party is counting on the small percentage of votes of the migrant Kashmiri Pandits to see it through. In the 2002 Assembly polls, a Kashmiri Pandit, Raman Mattoo, had won in Habba Kadal with the help of the Pandit votes when the majority boycotted.

But will all these dynamics fall into place to benefit the BJP? Though this is difficult to predict, what makes the party confident this time is the overpowering political appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which it believes has turned around the party’s fortunes in the state. The party, which was hobbled by the 2012 cross-voting scandal in which seven of its 11 legislators voted for the rival candidates of the Congress-NC combine in the Legislative Council election, has now become a pre-eminent political force in Jammu, taking over the space earlier held by the Congress.

One reason could be that the Modi-led BJP has found a snug fit in Jammu’s politically charged history as the fountainhead of Hindu nationalist politics in the country. It was here that Balraj Madhok formed the Praja Parishad Party in 1949 to demand the complete unification of J&K with India and merged it two years later with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founded by Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The Jana Sangh founder died in a Jammu jail while protesting the autonomous status to J&K under Article 370. And this was also the inspiration for the Jana Sangh’s slogan of Ek Vidhan, Ek Nishan, Ek Pradhan (One Law, One Flag, One Head).

However, going by the BJP’s recent manoeuvrings in the state, the party isn’t content with its ideological pedigree or Modi’s charisma alone. It has put in place a game plan to consolidate the state’s Hindu vote bank in its favour by raking up issues like the abrogation of Article 370, return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits and PoK refugees, and adopting a tough posture against Pakistan.

Modi has visited the state twice since taking over as prime minister and both the visits were geared to appeal to the constituencies in Jammu and Ladakh. He has not been to Srinagar yet. During the same period, issues such as the Kausar Nag Yatra have created a communal and regional divide in an environment already heavy with the hangover of the 2013 Kishtwar riots, which had led to the death of three persons and burning of property worth crores. The recent past has also witnessed localised communal tensions over the Amarnath Yatra and cow slaughter, besides a land dispute that took on communal overtones as one community claimed ownership over it while the other sought to use it for wrestling matches.

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The BJP has also sought to link itself with smaller parties in the Valley such as the People’s Conference, a move that the latter has neither confirmed nor denied. Besides, Kashmir has also seen the emergence of a mysterious new political outfit — the People’s Republican Party — that many people in the Valley see as yet another attempt to divide the Muslim votes.

“The BJP is attempting an ambitious experiment in political engineering in the state, backed up with money, media and the staple Hindutva tools and tactics,” says a senior PDP leader. “But this multipronged game plan will need a host of factors, all of them favouring no other party but the BJP. How can that happen?”

There is a fundamental difference in the way the BJP and the PDP — the two parties tipped to perform well — are approaching the election. While the BJP has created a din around its Mission 44+, with a number of top leaders, including Modi and Shah, making a beeline for the state, the PDP has studiously maintained a low profile. The latter seems disinclined to pursue the soft-separatist line it plied in the previous Assembly polls, choosing instead to pitch itself as the facilitator of any Indo-Pakistan effort for a Kashmir solution and an instrument for shaping the public and political opinion in the country in favour of such a process.

In recent years, the PDP has consciously moderated its soft-separatist rhetoric, fearing it would make the Centre insecure. But the party has followed a calculated strategy to widen and deepen its base in the state by, first and foremost, fashioning a political discourse that looks at the issues and the Kashmir situation through the prism of the prevailing public sentiment. Second, it has sought to expand the state’s middle ground to be accommodative of the Valley’s entrenched mainstream-separatist divide. And third, it harks back to the time when it ruled the state in coalition with the Congress, showcasing those years as proof of its good work, especially when the succeeding NC-Congress government is widely seen as having failed to make a demonstrative difference.

Moreover, the PDP also hopes to build upon its success in the General Election, where it swept the three seats in the Valley, and secure a majority on its own. The party’s primary focus is on the 46 seats in Kashmir even as it expects to make a dent in Jammu and Ladakh as well. If the current disaffection with the NC and the Congress persists, which is the likely short-term scenario, the PDP has a strong chance to emerge as the single largest party. What gives the PDP hope is that it led in 41 of the 46 Assembly segments in the Valley in the General Election, while the BJP led in only 27 Assembly segments in Jammu and Ladakh.

Thus, despite the hype generated by the BJP’s Mission 44+, it is the PDP that seems to have a better chance in the Assembly polls. “In J&K, 20 seats is the Congress’ best Assembly poll performance in the past four decades,” says a Congress leader. “It was possible because the party could garner the votes of both Hindus and Muslims. But the BJP panders to the concerns of only one community. How can it even aspire to winning the most seats in a Muslim-majority state?”

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