Modi has pledged a huge economic package to Jammu and Kashmir if the BJP wins elections. Additionally, the BJP is using the communal card in the Jammu region to lure the Hindu vote bank. Traditionally, the party has been quite a grassroots party in the Jammu region but it has never been able to bag more than 11 assembly seats – out of a total of 87.
However, the BJP is now eying 44-plus seats to form its own government in the Muslim-majority and disputed state for the first time in the last six decades. The BJP intends to do away with Article 370 which ensures Kashmir a special status within the Indian Union. The BJP plan seems to be an ambitious task but it has made its campaign highly competitive and interesting. That might hugely improve voter turnout and the party standing in terms of assembly seats.
In the recent general elections, the coalition government of National Conference and Congress Party led by Omer Abdullah has miserably failed to win even a single Lok Sabha seat from the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. On top of that, the recent floods displaced over a million people and the state authorities have failed to help the people affected. The sluggish response from the administration to rescue and rehabilitate people badly affected Omer Abdullah’s government approval rating.
Besides, Omer Abdullah in his six-year long stint in power could not manage to confront major challenges such as revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which gives blanket impunity to security forces. Civil liberties were heavily curbed and rampant human rights violation was the hallmark of his era. Dissident voices, particularly the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leaders, were either put in jail or kept under house arrest for months. Thousands of young people were sent to prison just to keep them away from running street protests. Therefore, it is believed that the National Conference and Congress might get its lowest vote ever in the history of polls in Kashmir due to their poor performance.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mufti Muhammad Saeed has emerged as a major contestant in the electoral battle. It has a fairly better track record of good governance and service delivery. Above all, the PDP is considered to be the soft face of pro-freedom groups in Kashmir. It has introduced self-rule in its party manifesto which also envisages cross-LoC linkages and free movement of people, services and goods between divided Kashmir. Besides, the anti-incumbency factor also favours the PDP.
A large number of stalwarts of the National Conference and Congress have quit their parties and joined the PDP in recent weeks. That may ensure that the PDP will emerge as the single largest political party in the upcoming elections.
Interestingly, late APHC leader Abdul Ghani Lone’s son Sajjad Lone is also contesting the elections and hoping to win a couple of seats, particularly from his home-town Kupwara. Sajjad is an imaginative and nonconformist leader who once was quite close to the APHC and Islamabad but parted ways when his father was shot to death in broad daylight.
A couple of days ago, Sajjad had a meeting with Narendra Modi whom he declared a big brother. Observers considered Sajjad Lone as a prospective ally of the BJP in Kashmir while insiders believe that his meeting with the Indian PM was meant to give Sajjad stature and send a signal to the Indian army and establishment – who call shots in Kashmir – to not create hurdles in the way of Lone and his party, the Peoples Conference.
Given the BJP’s policies towards Kashmir, the APHC and other pro-azadi groups are not running an aggressive election boycott campaign and implicitly providing space to local Kashmiri parties to compete against the BJP. Unlike past polls, it is expected that militant outfits will not try to stop voting. People in Kashmir have realised that if a boycott call by the APHC succeeds it will help the BJP win elections even in Muslim majority areas of the valley. In fact, it is a catch-22 situation for the APHC and its supporters.
Keeping in the view the fast-rising tensions between India and Pakistan, the upcoming government in Srinagar has a role to play in stabilising the region and reducing hostility. When India and Pakistan get into a confrontational mode it is the Kashmiris who suffer the most. Given the track record of Mufti Saeed, one can safely bet that if PDP wins upcoming polls it may work hard to pursue New Delhi to resume dialogue with Pakistan.
The writer is a freelance contributor.