It is a gripping four-cornered contest in Handwara and Kupwara districts of north Kashmir. The parties locked in a tough electoral battle are the ruling National Conference, People’s Democratic Party, People’s Conference and the Awami Itihad Party. But at the centre of it is People’s Conference chief Sajad Lone. But not necessarily because of his bright electoral prospects.
Lone stands out for being the only major separatist leader who has joined mainstream politics, still a morally ambiguous position in the Kashmir Valley. He stands out because Handwara and Kupwara are his family turf, bequeathed by his assassinated father and Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone, who commanded a mass following in the area. And in Lone’s all-out bid to muster public support, the attempt is to reclaim his political inheritance from its encroachers, the NC and the PDP.
And Lone also stands out for his wooing by the BJP — a party deeply distrusted in Kashmir for its Hindutva moorings and a hardline agenda on the state — capped by a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.
All poll calculations from the area give Lone one or a maximum of two seats in the Assembly. However, in the public discourse, the BJP-backed Lone has become one of the contenders for the chief minister’s post, a prospect that is nothing short of being surreal.
But then, everything about the ongoing election campaign in the state is playing out in a surreal fashion: a Muslim-majority state battling a 25-year-long separatist struggle is facing an all-out aggressive bid for power from an integrationist Hindu nationalist party. What is more, the slick, hi-tech public relations blitzkrieg mounted by the party has lent it every semblance of actually succeeding on the ground. So much so that the truth and hype seem to have fused in the process.
Is a BJP win possible? It is, if the party’s intricate game plan does pan out in the exact order in which it has been conceived. The BJP has named it the Mission 44 Plus — the party wants to win more than 44 seats in the 87-member Assembly to enable it form the government, an ambitious figure that even the Congress, with its secular credentials and cross-community support, has not been able to manage so far.
Assured of its support in Jammu and Ladakh, which together gave the party an unprecedented three seats in this year’s General Election, the BJP has moved its vaunted campaign machinery into the Kashmir Valley. A team of 150 members, including it professionals, poll strategists, organisational members of different wings of the party and other experts with a successful track record, have arrived in the state. This is BJP president Amit Shah’s core team, which is understood to have played a key role in the party’s victory in the just concluded Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana.
But the BJP’s focus in Kashmir is not so much on a direct victory — except in a few seats with a reasonable Kashmiri Pandit vote — as on forging an alliance with smaller political outfits. And Sajad Lone is the prize catch. His ‘former separatist’ tag puts him at the other extreme of the political spectrum and it psychologically enables the BJP traverse the intermediate secular space to reach him, helping the party mainstream itself in a place where it has been traditionally deemed as a pariah.
As Lone floats into the crowd with his supporters raising the slogan of “Jeevay, Jeevay, Lone Jeevay” (Long live Lone) — a take on Jeevay, Jeevay, Pakistan — his rumoured association with the BJP plays into the discourse. The relationship is handy for both: while being tagged with a familiar political name reduces the BJP’s forbidden status in the Valley, it vaults Lone, a marginal player, to a temporary national prominence.
But the BJP is not content with Lone alone. It has reached out to a recently forged loose grouping of bit-part players christened as the Awami Mutahida Mahaz and controversial politician Ghulam Hassan Mir, who was alleged to have received money from former Army chief Gen VK Singh in a bid to topple the Omar Abdullah government during the 2010 unrest. All these players are being readied for a post-poll alliance just in case the BJP needs them to form the government.
Besides, in recent weeks, Kashmir has witnessed the advent of seven mysterious new parties, which have strategically put up candidates in various constituencies in what appears an obvious bid to further “finesse” the outcome to predetermined calculations. They are the People’s Republican Party, Jammu and Kashmir Save Party, Awami Itihad Front, Liberal Democratic Party, Jammu and Kashmir Awami Tehreek, Jammu and Kashmir Tehreek-i-Haq and the Awami Tehreek-i-Insaf.
In addition, there are a host of independent candidates — most of them sired by local politics and intra-party infighting — who are likely to further sub-divide the votes and will be important in constituencies with a very low turnout as a result of the separatist boycott. For example, in Noorabad constituency set to go to polls on 2 December, 15 candidates have filed their nominations.
“There are many proxies in the field in this election,” says PDP leader Naeem Akhter. “The attempt is to split the vote, but thankfully, the people of Kashmir are becoming aware of such machinations.”
But politically, the BJP has deported itself with some dignity. Its election rhetoric and the general messaging have stayed well short of any communal undertones. The party has also publicly soft-pedalled its plan to revoke Article 370, lest it deepens an inherent distrust against the party in the Valley. Ditto for AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) or the talk of the installation of a Hindu chief minister in a Muslim-majority state.
In fact, the BJP’s most prominent face in the Valley is Dr Hina Shafi Bhat, the daughter of former National Conference legislator Mohammad Shafi Bhat, who said in an interview that she will “pick up a gun” should the BJP choose to abrogate Article 370. If nothing, this has helped soften the party’s hardline image in the Valley. Similarly, Ram Madhav, the BJP’s amiable latest import from the RSS, has been camping in the state to guide the campaign and hone it to the local sensitivities.
And over and above this elaborate groundwork and some tactical retreat on contested issues looms the towering figure of Modi. The confidence bred by his spectacular victory in the General Election and consolidated by the wins in Maharashtra and Haryana have filtered down through the campaign and given comfort to BJP campaigners in the state. With four visits to the state so far, the most by any prime minister in the first four months of his tenure, Modi has lodged the BJP at the heart of the ongoing electoral contest and psychologically within the striking distance of an otherwise impossible win in the state.
Modi’s recurrent presence on the scene, most strikingly during the floods and Diwali, has lent substance to the public relations blitzkrieg let loose by his party.
The BJP also depends on Modi for another reason — the lack of a prominent Muslim face in a Muslim-majority state, or for that matter even a Hindu leader of standing.
In 2012, the party lost seven of its 11 legislators from its best poll performance to date (in the 2008 Assembly election) to a cross-voting scandal in which they voted for candidates from the Congress-NC combine in the state Legislative Council election. And it is also for this reason that the party has felt the need to play up its association with Sajad Lone, who in some quarters is even billed as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate.
Local FM radio stations have snatches of Modi’s speeches playing as advertisements after regular intervals. One such snippet goes like this: “The dreams that Atal Bihari Vajpayee had seen for Kashmir, I will realise them. By empowering the people.”
Then there are front-page advertisements in newspapers, which exhort Kashmiris to vote for the lotus to rid themselves of the decades-long “dynastic rule”.
Besides, the party has also established a “media war room” in Srinagar exclusively for the polls. BJP MP Avinash Rai Khanna, who is also the party in charge of Jammu and Kashmir, and state media head Arun Kumar Gupta inaugurated the media cell, which is located at Pamposh Hotel in Lal Chowk.
“The media cell will brief the press about the day-to-day activities every day at 5 pm,” said BJP’s Kashmir spokesman Khalid Jehangir.
Behind this aggressive, over-the-ground campaign is the furtive RSS groundwork in the three regions of the state, beginning with the General Election when RSS workers were active in the border areas of Jammu to look after the people affected by the border shelling.
Similarly, the RSS, the BJP’s ideological progenitor, has a strong presence in Ladakh, where it was at the forefront of the relief work during the 2010 flood. Working through NGOs such as the Ladakh Welfare Sangh, the RSS has built a solid support base for the BJP to built upon.
If Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is to be believed, the RSS has spread its footprint in the Kashmir Valley too, “playing an important role in the length and breadth of the state”.
Speaking at a recent event in New Delhi to launch Justice (retd) G D Sharma’s book, Plight of Jammu and Kashmir – The Unknown Files, RSS leader Indresh Kumar said that there was “an opportunity in 2014 to get back lost Kashmir and Kashmiriyat into the mainstream”.
He added that the time had come for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, “who have faced terrorism, discrimination and separatism to get industrialisation, education and India-nisation”.
But does this multi-pronged strategy create a credible possibility for the BJP getting anywhere near its Mission 44 plus? The demographics and the electoral math of the state does not support this prospect. According to the 2011 census, 68.3 percent of the state’s population is Muslim, a community that has traditionally been deeply sceptical of the BJP.
But then, the state comprises three distinct geographical and cultural regions where Hindus and Muslims have different population ratios. While the Kashmir Valley, with a population of around 70 lakh, is 97 percent Muslim, Jammu at 53 lakh is 65 percent Hindu and Ladakh with a population of more than two lakh is more or less evenly split between Buddhists and Muslims with 6 percent Hindus. Similarly out of 87 seats in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, the Kashmir Valley has 44 seats, followed by Jammu with 37 and Ladakh four.
(In the outgoing Assembly, the NC had 28 members, followed by the PDP with 21, the Congress with 17 and the BJP with 11.)
Therefore, it is the Hindu-majority Jammu, which is the lynchpin of the BJP’s shot at power. But for the party to have a realistic chance of forming the state government, it will need to sweep the region, or at least win a maximum of the province’s 37 seats.
However, the electoral reality on the ground is far more convoluted to allow the BJP a free run. The 30 percent Muslim vote in Jammu is concentrated in six of the region’s 10 districts and there are around 17 Assembly segments that have a Muslim majority. This poses a serious dilemma for the BJP. It hopes to win these seats by attracting the entire Hindu vote and expecting the Muslim vote to split among the NC, PDP and the Congress.
And in the 20 Hindu-majority seats of the province, the party can win provided the Congress does not encroach upon into its Hindu vote bank. As a result, voting in Jammu will be a complex play of contingent factors.
As far as the Kashmir Valley is concerned, the party is looking to use the separatist boycott of the polls to its advantage in a few constituencies with a reasonable migrant Kashmiri Pandit population. Most prominent of such constituencies is Habba Kadal in Srinagar, which has around 15,000 Pandit voters.
In the 2002 Assembly polls, it was a Kashmiri Pandit, Raman Mattoo, who won in Habba Kadal when the majority boycotted. But for the meagre Pandit vote to make any difference, there has to be complete boycott by the majority community, which is unlikely to happen.
On the other hand, the BJP has a good chance of winning two seats of the Buddhist-dominated Leh.
It is thus a power bid hinging on the factors that are contingent and unforeseen. But the question is whether these factors will play out on the day in the order and degree in which they have been incentivised to play? They may or they may not. But the BJP is giving the attempt its best shot, bringing in all its campaign experience from the triumphs of the General Election and the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly polls to bring to bear on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election. But it is also adapting it to local politics, nuancing the message on contested issues such as Article 370 and AFSPA and muffling its extremist streak.
Modi will embark on a series of campaign rallies in the state from 22 November, one of which, and the politically most significant, will be held in Srinagar. It is understood that the BJP has been promised a huge audience for the rally by its new political allies.
Modi’s presence will only further heighten the buzz around the BJP in a campaign where the PDP, the party with the most plausible chance of emerging as the single largest, is making the least noise. But as the progress of polls season has underlined so far, whosoever wins the election, the campaign belongs exclusively to the BJP.