Hoping to build on its unprecedented success in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP has set itself an ambitious target of bagging 44 of the 87 seats in the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly in the polls expected to be held later this year. Though the ground realities make an absolute majority seem unattainable, the party is poised to do well in Jammu and Ladakh — two of the three provinces in the state — that send 37 and four MLAs, respectively, to the state Assembly.
The BJP entered the political centre-stage in the state by winning three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 General Election. It swept Jammu and Ladakh, defeating even the Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former J&K chief minister, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in the state. This turnaround in the BJP’s fortunes was an outcome of Narendra Modi’s emergence on the scene. With his blend of Hindutva and development themes, Modi rejuvenated a party that had been hobbled in 2011 by a scandal in which its legislators had voted for rival candidates of the ruling Congress-National Conference combine in the Legislative Council election. Modi’s campaign appealed to a large section of voters in Jammu, which has a population of over 70 percent Hindus and is rife with grievances against a state government perceived to be controlled from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley.
Modi had flagged off his election campaign from Madhopur on the state’s border with Punjab. It was the same place where the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee had made a speech on 11 May 1953, while he was on his way to protest the ‘permit system’, which forbade free entry of Indian citizens into J&K. Mookerjee was arrested and died in jail a month later.
Following the Madhopur rally, Modi held two more rallies in Jammu. Many were surprised by this attention disproportionate to the state’s importance in the national electoral scene. But Modi had got his priorities right. Despite being a Muslim-majority state, J&K has been the wellspring of Hindu nationalist politics. It was here that Balraj Madhok formed the Praja Parishad Party in 1949 to demand “complete unification” of J&K with India, and two years later, merged it with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. No wonder, many alleged that Modi was using J&K as a convenient political medium to address his nationalist constituency in India. And the gambit paid off in J&K also.
Hoping that the “Modi effect” will linger on until the Assembly polls, BJP has its sights set on Jammu and Ladakh. The party is also trying to win a few of the 46 seats in the Kashmir Valley by turning the separatist boycott of the polls in its favour. Insiders say that the party is banking on the migrant non-Muslim votes in the constituencies that are likely to be most affected by the election boycott.
For instance, take Habba Kadal and Amira Kadal. There are around 27,000 and 15,000 Kashmiri Pandit voters, respectively, in these two constituencies in Srinagar. Most of them live in Jammu or outside the state. Their votes could prove decisive in case the Muslims boycott the election. The last time that happened was in the 2002 Assembly polls, when Raman Mattoo, a Kashmiri Pandit, won in Habba Kadal with the help of the Pandit votes.
Similarly, in the militant stronghold Sopore, another constituency that sees intense election boycott, the Pandits could influence the outcome if they vote en bloc for one party. There are more such constituencies such as Budgam, Kokernag, Pahalgam and Tral, where boycott by the majority community could play into the BJP’s hands if it manages to mobilise the non-Muslim votes. “We are working on 10 such constituencies in the Kashmir Valley,” says a state leader of the BJP. “We hope to win at least five.”
To achieve this outcome, the party is using a calculated strategy to leverage Modi’s charisma to maximum electoral advantage. This is apparent in the kind of political signals the new Central government has sent to the state.
Modi’s 4 July visit to the state — the first after becoming prime minister — had development and religious motifs writ large over it. Inaugurating a railway line to Katra in Jammu and a 240 mw power project at Uri in the Valley, he took care to frame the projects in terms of their national importance and not their significance for the state alone. The new railway line was portrayed as one that would help bring pilgrims from Jammu and other parts of the country to the Vaishno Devi shrine and the Uri project as one that would supply power to north India.
Then came the Union Budget, with a proposal for an Indian Institute of Technology to be set up in Jammu, a solar power project for Ladakh and a 500 crore package for “rebuilding the lives” of Kashmiri Pandits. In fact, soon after taking power at the Centre, the BJP stressed upon the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits as a priority area. And together with the statement on efforts to abrogate Article 370 — made on the very first day of the government by the Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the pmo and a BJP leader from J&K — it sent across a political message that alienated one section of society while seeking to appease another.
“We are in a strong position in Jammu and Ladakh,” says senior BJP leader RP Singh, who is the party in-charge for J&K. “We are currently focussing on Kashmir. You will see the land of sufis will spring a big surprise.”
In the last Assembly polls in 2008, riding on the communal polarisation in the wake of the Amarnath land row, the BJP won a record 11 seats in Jammu, losing a few to the Congress by a margin of 200-300 votes. The Congress, which won 17 seats in Jammu, became a part of the coalition government with the National Conference. However, a year later, the BJP failed to win a single seat in the state in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The reason was that by that time the Jammu-Srinagar divide, which had underpinned the 2008 Assembly polls, had healed and the party didn’t have a charismatic national or regional leader to make up for it.
But this time, the BJP is pulling all stops to replicate its 2014 Lok Sabha performance. The party has made no secret of its distinct political slant towards Jammu to retain its current faith with the electorate in the province. Besides, it seeks to woo the Buddhist voters in Ladakh. In the General Election, BJP candidate Thupstan Chhewang defeated his nearest rival, independent candidate Ghulam Raza, by a slim margin of 36 votes. With a population of around 2.8 lakh, Ladakh is evenly split between Buddhists and Muslims.
What could fundamentally change the game in the state is an undercurrent of polarisation, which could decisively sway Jammu towards the BJP and also help consolidate the non-Muslim vote in the Valley. Political observers in the state believe that in the Lok Sabha poll campaign, the Modi-led BJP had successfully built upon the long-simmering communal tension in the state, which had culminated in the Kishtwar riots last year, besides working on some local grievances.
“The other political formations in the state have to be on the guard,” says Naseer Ahmad, author of Kashmir Pending. “A polarised political landscape will bring religious identity into play and distort the outcome of the election.”