Modi’s J&K Gambit

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Since his nomination as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi has addressed two rallies in Jammu & Kashmir, a state where even the BJP’s best electoral performance would not yield more than one Lok Sabha seat. On both occasions, contrary to expectations, Modi struck a moderate note, pledging to carry forward former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “humane” policy on the state.

“The path shown by Vajpayee — humanity, democracy and Kashmiriyat — we will carry it forward,” Modi said while addressing a rally at Hiranagar on 26 March.

Last December, Modi addressed a public meeting in Jammu where he expressed a similar sentiment and also indicated a possible BJP climbdown on Article 370 by calling for a debate on the issue rather than its abrogation.

So, what is the BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful and the most prominent candidate for the top job in the country doing, frequenting a state that has the least significance in terms of its electoral weight for the General Election?

J&K has only six Lok Sabha seats — three in the Kashmir Valley, two in Jammu and one in Ladakh. And among these, the BJP stands a chance of winning only one seat in Jammu. The party failed to win a seat in the 2009 General Election, and that too only a year after it had won a record 11 Assembly seats, riding high on the communal polarisation following the Amarnath land row.

What makes J&K so special for the BJP and Modi? Many reasons are cited for this focus on the state. Most important of these is that despite being India’s only Muslim majority state, J&K has been the wellspring of Hindu nationalist politics of the country. It was here that Balraj Madhok formed the Praja Parishad Party in 1949 to demand unification of J&K with India and later merged it with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, founded by Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951.

Second, a rally in J&K has a wider political resonance in the country as it caters to the existing anxiety about the state among the electorate. This is seen as the reason for Modi heading to Madhopur on the Punjab-J&K border for his first public meeting soon after taking over as the BJP’ campaign chief at Goa last July.

Madhopur was the site of the fateful 11 May 1953 speech by Mookerjee 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.

“Jammu & Kashmir is the starting place of Hindutva; it is the home of a drawn and violent separatist struggle; it is India’s only Muslim majority state and it brings Pakistan into the picture,” says Awami Itihad Party leader Engineer Rashid. “Everything that the party invokes is to garner votes in India.”

Incidentally, a day after Modi’s rally at Hiranagar, three militants attacked an army camp in the nearby Kathua, killing three persons, including a soldier. The militants were later killed. The incident brought a renewed focus on terrorism in the context of the ongoing poll campaign.

There is, however, a more nuanced opinion of Modi’s foray into the state. PDP chief spokesman Naeem Akhter thinks that Modi is using the state to reinforce his attempted moderate image. “J&K is the platform from which he can better project himself as a moderate in order to reach out to the moderate section of Muslim population in India,” says Akhter. “And this is what he has obviously tried to do by making noises that are accommodative as against divisive.”

Says academician Rekha Chaudhury, “Jammu has been visible on the BJP map. But the rallies in J&K are not only for the state, they are meant to address the rest of India.” Chaudhury says she is more interested in what Modi is saying in the state, not his visits. “Modi is talking of Insaniyat, democracy and development, but he doesn’t elaborate on it. Has he also thought about it? The BJP disowned the peace process on Kashmir as soon as Vajpayee left the scene.”

However, beyond the national dimension of Modi’s J&K rallies, his presence in the state can be a potentially significant factor in this year’s Assembly polls, which follow shortly after the General Election.

Hobbled by the 2012 cross-voting scandal during which seven of its 11 legislators voted for rival candidates in the Legislative Council polls, a beleaguered state BJP unit is looking to Modi to revive its political fortunes. The party hopes that the Modi magic will go a long way to help it retain the seats otherwise being sought by its rival Congress as a potential windfall in its bid to emerge as the largest single party in the crucial Assembly polls.

In the Valley too, where the BJP stands no chance of winning any seat, the party’s cadres have rallied around Modi. In fact, when Modi was elevated as the party’s campaign head early last year, the BJP cadres in the Valley not only backed him but also organised small rallies in his favour. Sweets were distributed at Srinagar’s BJP office, which, ironically, is located just across the headquarters of the Hurriyat Conference, the Valley’s separatist amalgam.

Modi’s rise has attracted also some ambivalent reaction from the state’s political quarters and even among the population as a whole. He is feared and also seen as a hope for Kashmir. So much so that even moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq looks to him as a leader who can make a difference on the Kashmir issue.

“I hope Modi will be in a better position to make a difference on Kashmir,” Mirwaiz said in a recent statement. “It was BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had initiated some decisive steps to resolve Kashmir.”

In the state’s political mainstream, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti thinks that Modi will be in a better position to deliver on Kashmir. “There is a school of thought that being an authoritarian leader and belonging to the BJP, Modi can certainly move with confidence on Kashmir,” she said. “Besides, Modi has already made it clear that it will go by Vajpayee’s policies on the state. And this is a hopeful sign for the future should Modi come to power.”

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