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BJP Shrinks Away From Facing Voters in Kashmir

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BJP Shrinks Away From Facing Voters in Kashmir

Hugely unpopular among Kashmiris, India’s ruling party would have lost had it dared to contest in the valley.

BJP Shrinks Away From Facing Voters in Kashmir

Supporters of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party gather around Mehbooba Mufti (back to camera) at a campaign event in Larnoo, Kashmir, India, Apr. 21, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/ J&K Peoples Democratic Party

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not fielded a single candidate from all three constituencies of the Kashmir Valley Srinagar, Baramullah, and Anantnag-Rajouri in the ongoing Indian parliamentary elections.

Of the 543 constituencies voting in the multiphase general elections, the three Kashmir constituencies are the only ones in the country where neither the BJP nor a party that is its pre-poll ally is in the fray.

Kashmiri analysts say that even if the BJP had contested, it would not have won a single seat. Indeed, the “rejection of its candidates by Kashmiri voters” would have been so “massive” that they would have “lost their security deposits,” a professor at the Kashmir University in Srinagar told The Diplomat. Under Indian election rules, candidates who receive less than one-sixth of the total number of votes forfeit the amount they deposit at the time of filing their nominations.

In the 2019 parliamentary elections, BJP candidates contesting in the three Kashmir constituencies lost their security deposits.

Of the five parliamentary constituencies in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, two Udhampur and Jammu are in the Jammu region. They voted on April 19 and 26, respectively. The BJP fielded candidates from both constituencies and stands a strong chance of winning there. The Jammu region has long been a BJP bastion.

The Kashmir valley, which comprises Srinagar, Baramulla, and Anantnag-Rajouri, will vote on May 13, May 20, and May 25, respectively.

This is the first major election in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) since August 2019, when the BJP government revoked J&K’s autonomy, stripped it of statehood, and split it into two federally-run units or union territories (UTs) J&K and Ladakh.

It was Kashmir that was the epicenter of the post-1989 anti-India insurgency. And it was in Kashmir, and Srinagar in particular, where opposition to the Narendra Modi government’s controversial revocation of Article 370 was strongest.

Over the past three decades, election campaigns in Kashmir were low-key and voter participation was dismal.  Voter turnout in the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, for instance, was 18.63 percent in 1996, 21 percent in 2004 (it was almost nil in Srinagar city), 25.55 percent in 2009, 25.86 percent in 2014, and 14.43 percent in 2019.

In addition to militants’ diktats to the public to boycott elections, the dire security situation and the Kashmiris’ lack of faith in democratic politics kept voters away from polling booths. Some who voted did so under pressure from the Indian security forces. Those who contested the elections campaigned quietly.

This time, the election scene in Kashmir is markedly different.  More candidates have thrown their hats in the electoral ring and there is “greater enthusiasm” among candidates and parties, the Kashmir University professor said.

Anantnag, which was “notorious for boycotting elections in the past,” is witnessing rallies even in remote villages, a Srinagar-based journalist told The Diplomat.

Srinagar’s downtown area is abuzz with political discussions. Once known to be a separatist stronghold, notorious for encounters between security forces on the one hand and militants and stone-throwers on the other, this neighborhood witnessed several election rallies this week, including those addressed by the National Conference (NC)’s Omar Abdullah and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)’s Mehbooba Mufti.

While candidates continue to move around with the protection of security officials, they are holding rallies and visiting homes to woo voters. “The participation of politicians and the people in the election is open and enthusiastic. The popular conversation is about elections,” the journalist said, pointing out that “this scenario was unthinkable” over the last three decades.

So what explains the new Kashmiri enthusiasm for elections?

In the five years since its revocation of Article 370, the Modi government has “cracked down relentlessly on militant groups and separatists. It has criminalized separatist politics and eliminated the separatist ecosystem. Moreover, it has crushed any kind of dissidence, even criticism of its policies and decisions,” pointed out the Srinagar-based journalist.

The revocation of Article 370 and the Modi government’s silencing of Kashmiris has triggered massive anger and outrage in Kashmir. “With Delhi denying Kashmiris the space for separatist politics, people see elections as the only way they can take revenge against the BJP for its actions and send out the message that they will not accept the BJP and its plans for Kashmir. They are using the elections to embarrass the BJP,” the journalist said.

Had the BJP dared to contest in Kashmir, Kashmiris would have “voted against it. Now they will vote for parties opposed to the BJP,” the professor said.

Although the BJP is not contesting the parliamentary elections in Kashmir, it is very much a player. While addressing a rally in Jammu on April 16, Home Minister Amit Shah called on voters to “not to vote for parties like National Conference, Congress and PDP.”

Moreover, parties like the Apni Party and People’s Conference are perceived as the “BJP’s proxies.” Not only has the BJP publicly endorsed these parties by describing them as “patriotic parties,” but also the Apni Party and the People’s Conference are collaborating. According to the professor, the two parties are reportedly receiving “wide-ranging support” from the administration.

In a situation where anti-BJP sentiment is running high, one would expect things to be easy for Kashmir’s main anti-BJP parties the NC and the PDP.

Although the NC and BJP came together to oppose the BJP’s August 2019 decision as part of the Gupkar Alliance and subsequently as part of the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) coalition, they fell apart in early April over seat-sharing.

Consequently, they are fighting each other in Kashmir. Anti-BJP votes will therefore get divided between the two parties, benefiting the BJP and its proxies.

On May 13, when polling booths in Srinagar open, voters can be expected to show up in larger numbers than in the past. Kashmiri voters may still not have confidence in India’s elections. But they are signaling that they are willing to use the ballot box to send out a loud and clear message to New Delhi.

But will the BJP be willing to hear that message?