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Divided INDIA Bloc Could Help BJP in India’s Jammu & Kashmir

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Divided INDIA Bloc Could Help BJP in India’s Jammu & Kashmir

The upcoming general election is the first in J&K since the Modi government’s controversial decision in August 2019 to revoke its autonomy and strip it of its statehood.

Divided INDIA Bloc Could Help BJP in India’s Jammu & Kashmir

National Congress leaders, including party President Farooq Abdullah and his son and Vice-President Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, at a press conference in Srinagar, India, April 13, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/J&K National Conference

On August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had guaranteed autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state was bifurcated into two federally-governed union territories (UTs): Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and Ladakh.

The upcoming elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, is the first since the Modi government made this unilateral and controversial decision.

Although elections to the J&K assembly are long overdue and the Supreme Court of India mandated the conduct of these elections by September this year, assembly elections will not be held now. On Friday, Modi assured that the assembly elections would be conducted soon and statehood would be restored.

J&K and Ladakh have a total of six seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha (two MPs are nominated). Voting in the two UTs will be conducted in five phases, in Udhampur on April 19, Jammu on April 26, Anantnag-Rajouri on May 7, Srinagar on May 13, and ending in Baramulla and Ladakh on May 20. The counting of votes will take place on June 4.

Of the five seats in J&K, three are in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley, while two are in the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

The main parties in the fray in J&K are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and the regional parties, including the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference (NC), the Mehbooba Mufti-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Sajad Ghani Lone-led J&K People’s Conference (JKPC), Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party, and the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP). The Apni Party and DPAP were born post-2019.

Following the revocation of J&K’s autonomy in 2019, several local parties that were critical of Modi’s Kashmir policy came together to form the People’s Alliance on Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) or the Gupkar Alliance. This alliance called for the “restoration of democracy” in J&K and criticized the removal of the “special status” that protected the rights of J&K’s “permanent residents” in terms of accessing the state’s resources and opportunities. However, the alliance started disintegrating in 2021. Then in 2023, when the Congress-led INDIA bloc was formed, the NC and PDP joined the coalition.

However, the coming general elections will see the NC and PDP fighting each other in J&K as the two parties fell out over seat-sharing.

When the PDP demanded the NC’s support in the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency in exchange for its support to the NC in Srinagar and Baramulla, the NC refused, arguing that the PDP could not press demands in any constituency as it had ranked third in vote share, after the NC and JKPC, in the Kashmir valley in the 2019 election. Further, the PDP has weakened significantly since then due to a series of desertions of leaders for other parties.

As a result of that spat, the two parties will lock horns in all three seats in the Kashmir valley, where the Congress will back the NC in all seats. The NC will back the Congress in the two seats in Jammu and the lone seat in Ladakh. The PDP has extended unconditional support to the Congress in the two Jammu seats but their popularity in that region has been negligible.

“The BJP has reason to be happy with the situation,” said a Srinagar-based academic, who did not want to be named, “as it will result in a division of anti-BJP votes.”

“The PDP’s votes could have ensured an NC victory in Baramulla and the NC’s support would have sealed PDP’s victory in Anantnag. All three valley seats would have surely gone to the INDIA bloc. But the NC thought, the PDP is a dying force and why should they help it revive?” the academic said.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP scored landslide victories in the Jammu region, winning 61.8 percent and 58.1 percent of the votes in Udhampur and Jammu constituencies, respectively. It also won Ladakh, where Muslims make up the majority, followed by Buddhists.

In the Kashmir Valley, the NC won all three seats but the voter turnout was abysmally low due to an election boycott call by separatist groups. As for the BJP, its vote share was less than 3 percent in Baramulla and Srinagar, and 8.3 percent in the Anantnag seat.

According to Kashmiri political observers, the NC is comfortably positioned in Srinagar, where Aga Syed Ruhulla, who has been described in the media as “among the most vocal opponents of the nullification of Article 370,” is pitted against the PDP’s Waheed ur Rehman Para.

Baramulla will see a close contest between NC’s Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of J&K, Lone, and the PDP’s Fayaz Ahmad Mir, a former member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper House of the parliament.

As of April 14, the BJP has not announced any candidates in the Kashmir valley. There are strong rumors that the BJP may not field any candidate here and support other regional parties instead.

There are rumors of “a tacit or direct alliance between the BJP and regional parties like Lone’s JKPC, Bukhari’s Apni Party and Azad’s DPAP,” Siddiq Wahid, a distinguished professor at the Shiv Nadar University, said, adding that “in Kashmir, rumors often turn out to be true.”

The rumors were likely triggered by the visit of BJP leader Tarun Chugh and Lone to Bukhari’s residence in Srinagar. The leaders claimed their visit to Bukhari’s house was a courtesy call to see the ailing politician.

According to Wahid, the Modi government’s decision to not hold the assembly elections along with the parliamentary election shows its lack of confidence in the ground reality of Kashmir.

Disunity among Kashmir’s political parties at such a juncture was “unfortunate,” Wahid said. “The exclusion of the PDP from the Congress-NC understanding will increase the chances of the votes within Kashmir being further split.”

A split in anti-BJP votes would give a fillip to the BJP’s candidates in the Baramulla and Anantnag, where delimitation has changed the characteristics of the constituencies, according to Wahid.

Of all the constituencies in the valley, it is in Anantnag where the BJP had the largest vote share. After delimitation, the constituency has been renamed as Anantnag-Rajouri, and its demographic composition has changed as Muslim-concentrated parts of the Jammu region have been added to this constituency.

According to another Kashmir-based journalist, “The Paharis follow Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh faiths but ethnicity rather than religion defines their identity. Therefore, a Pahari candidate from the BJP or a BJP-backed Pahari candidate from any regional party can throw a tough challenge to the NC.” Additionally, the government’s decision to accord Rajouri’s Paharis with Scheduled Tribe status is likely to earn the BJP their support.

Kashmiris constitute nearly half of the voter base in Rajouri-Poonch while Pahari tribes and Gujjar tribes comprise 28.5 percent and 21.5 percent, respectively.

In the fray in this constituency are the PDP’s Mufti, the DPAP’s Azad, NC’s Mian Altaf Lahrvi, and the Apni Party’s Zafar Iqbal Manhas. Mufti and Azad are former chief ministers.

While the PDP is eyeing the Kashmiri votes, the NC is hoping that its Gujjar candidate will secure the majority of Gujjar votes as well as a large chunk of Kashmiri votes. It remains to be seen if the BJP fields its own candidate or backs the Apni Party’s Pahari candidate.

“Of the 18 assembly seats that constitute the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat, 11 are in south Kashmir and seven are in the Jammu region. If there is a low voter turnout in south Kashmir as in 2019 and a high voter turnout in the Jammu region, the BJP or a BJP-backed candidate’s victory cannot be ruled out,” the journalist said.

According to Wahid, Ladakh presents a contrasting picture, where “the unity among diverse parties is almost complete” and the BJP seems set for a significant defeat due to public anger with the BJP’s failure to deliver on its promises to them.

As of April 14, the Congress was in talks with the two organizations, the Apex Body Leh and Kargil Democratic Alliance, that are leading the ongoing mass protest movement, for fielding a consensus candidate.

Across J&K, the BJP is highlighting how their policies and measures have brought peace and normalcy to the insurgency-wracked region, while opposition parties are highlighting the BJP government’s suppression of democratic space.

Which of the two campaigns will resonate with voters? We will know on June 4.