Jammu is a barometer of Modi’s fortunes

On the ascendant The BJP’s J&K unit hopes Modi’s influence will help leverage its political standing in the state
On the ascendant The BJP’s J&K unit hopes Modi’s influence will help leverage its political standing in the state, Photo: Reuters

Jammu & Kashmir may be India’s only Muslim-majority state but Jammu, the state’s winter capital, was one of the fountainheads of Hindu nationalist politics in the country. It was here that Balraj Madhok formed the Praja Parishad Party in 1949 and later merged it with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, founded by Syama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951 and the forerunner of the BJP. Mookerjee died in a Kashmir jail while protesting the special status given to the state under Article 370 of the Constitution. In fact, the Jana Sangh’s slogan of Ek Vidhan, Ek Nishan, Ek Pradhan (One Law, One Symbol, One Leader) emerged from its opposition to J&K’s special status.

Today, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s rise as the poster boy of Hindu nationalism is again stirring the political pot in the state, with Jammu, the BJP’s traditional stronghold, at the centre of it. Hobbled by the cross-voting scandal last year when seven of its 11 legislators voted for rival candidates from the Congress- National Conference combine in the Legislative Council election, the BJP’s state unit hopes that Modi’s influence will leverage its political standing in the state and help it retain the seats being eyed by the Congress in the crucial 2014 Assembly polls.

However, Jammu’s nationalist pedigree gives the politics around Modi a larger ideological dimension. If Jammu is swayed by Modi’s charisma, it will be a barometer of the success of the brand of Hindutva politics he champions. “With only two Lok Sabha seats, Jammu is too small to make any difference to the BJP’s electoral performance at the national level but a Modi wave in the city will certainly reflect the political mood elsewhere in the country,” says Gull Wani, director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies, University of Kashmir. “Unlike the Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-dominated areas in Jammu relate to and also reflect the dominant national political mood.”

Wani’s opinion is supported by the experience of previous elections. In 1996, when the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha for the first time, it also bagged eight seats in the J&K Assembly — until then the highest ever tally for the party — and won both the parliamentary seats in Jammu in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha polls even as the party went on to capture power at the Centre. But in 2002, when the BJP’s political stock had seemingly declined at the national level, the party was reduced to just one seat in the Assembly polls. In the 2004 General Election, when the BJP was ousted from power at the Centre, it lost both Lok Sabha seats in Jammu.

In 2008, riding on the communal polarisation in the wake of the Amarnath land row, the BJP garnered a record 11 seats in the Assembly. The next year, however, when the BJP lost the Lok Sabha polls at the national level, it also lost both seats from Jammu.

Indeed, Jammu’s political priorities have largely been driven by the reigning national political mood rather than state statelevel politics. And with Modi being seen as a rising force across many parts of the country, Jammu’s political preferences also assume a significance far beyond their electoral impact. No wonder Modi tried to invoke Jammu’s Hindu nationalist history when for his first public speech soon after taking over as BJP’s campaign chief at Goa, he headed to Madhopur in Pathankot on J&K’s border with Punjab. Madhopur was the site of the fateful 11 May 1953 speech by Mookerjee while on his way to violate the permit system that then forbade Indian citizens free entry into J&K. He was arrested and put in jail, where he died on 23 June the same year.

However, contrary to expectations, Modi’s speech was not divisive. He didn’t talk about abrogation of Article 370, BJP’s stock line on Kashmir, but called for “healing the wounds of Kashmir”. Modi also promised to follow the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s policy on Kashmir. “Vajpayee had sought to win over the heart of Kashmir with compassion, love and dialogue. Had he been elected to power in 2004, he would have succeeded in his Kashmir policy,” Modi told the gathering.

More importantly, this didn’t generate any discomfort in the party’s state unit. Sweets were distributed at the BJP office in Srinagar, which, ironically, is located just across the headquarters of the Hurriyat Conference, the amalgam of the Valley’s separatists. Leaders of the party’s J&K unit called up Modi’s private secretary to convey their good wishes. In a show of renewed political energy in the Valley, the party went about holding meetings of its workers in north, central and south Kashmir.

“India is clamouring for Modiji. He will also be good for the state,” says Ashok Kaul, BJP’s general secretary in J&K. “He is young and can mobilise the masses.”

Similarly, the party’s J&K Youth Vice- President Ashiq Hussain Dar doesn’t think the 2002 Gujarat riots will be a political liability for Modi. “Don’t blame Modiji for the 2002 riots. Even the court has acquitted him. It was the media that connected him to the riots,” Dar told TEHELKA. “The Muslims in Gujarat have overwhelmingly voted for him. The BJP won in seven out of the 11 seats in the Gujarat Assembly where the Muslims are a determining factor. This proves that Modi is not communal. His development model for Gujarat has benefited every community.”

Ironically, Dar, who now “loves Modiji from the bottom of (his) heart”, was a member of the hardline separatist alliance led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani before he joined the BJP in 2005. He also contested on a BJP ticket in Anantnag and polled around 600 votes.

Because there are only six Lok Sabha seats in J&K, no political leader from the state is able to gain a substantive national leverage that could have set him up as some kind of an ideological force. But Modi’s rise as a prime ministerial contender is being keenly watched by the major regional parties in the state like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party even though the BJP’s return to power at the Centre will hardly alter the existing political equations in the state.

As J&K is a Muslim-majority state with an inbuilt scepticism towards Hindutva ideology, the BJP stands little chance of coming close to forming a government in the state in the foreseeable future. It has, however, a slim chance of becoming part of a coalition government. For now, if any party in the state has the space for political manoeuvring, it is the Congress. And with Kashmir looking set for further political fragmentation in the 2014 polls, with a few newly minted parties also entering the fray, the Congress’ political clout is expected to grow further.

Modi’s own political connection with J&K goes back to 1991-93 when he used to visit the state often as the BJP’s North Zone in-charge. Now, when he is riding a popularity wave in the country, there are no high political stakes for him in J&K to warrant spending more time there. State BJP leaders, however, talk of requesting him to visit the state during the election season next year.

“Modiji will make a huge difference to the political fortunes of the BJP in the state,” says senior BJP leader Ashok Khajuria, who was among the few leaders from the state invited to the party’s Goa conclave for Modi’s promotion as campaign chief. “We hope to perform even better than we did in the 2008 Assembly polls.”

But Jammu’s real importance to the larger national debate around Modi is symbolic. As Modi leads the campaign to put the BJP back in the saddle in New Delhi, Jammu will be one of the important places to watch whether he is succeeding.

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