Jammu & Kashmir

Common enemy

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Raman Bhalla, the Congress’ Jammu candidate, addressing a rally at Resham Ghar in Jammu on March 30. Photo: Anando Bhakto

Akbar Lone, National Conference candidate for Baramulla, at an election rally in Boniyar, Baramulla, on April 1. Photo: Ananda Bhakto

THE Congress’ Udhampur candidate, Vikramaditya Singh, at Jadd village in Debhra tehsil in Udhampur. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

There is not much reception to the latest electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir, but political parties expect voters to turn out in good numbers as they know that unless they elect the right candidates the BJP will gain politically by installing its proxies.

The shallowness of the elections in Kashmir exhibits itself when one drives down to Baramulla from Srinagar. The 70-kilometre-stretch is bereft of the usual tumult of electioneering, and it is only when one reaches Pattan, roughly 27 km north-west of the capital city, that a couple of hoardings can be sighted. Akbar Lone, the National Conference (N.C.) candidate, looks intense in them, clad in the traditional karakul headgear and broad-rimmed spectacles. His sombre countenance matches the mood of the electorate who have been witness to a continuing crackdown in Kashmir, spike in civilian deaths, machinations to prop up proxy regimes, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) outcry over Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, which has attained a feverish pitch ahead of the Lok Sabha election. Election will be held for six seats (Baramulla, Srinagar, Anantnag, Ladakh, Udhampur and Jammu) in five phases from April 11 to May 6 and for the Anantnag seat in three phases in different Assembly segments.

In such a charged atmosphere, it is natural that there is not much of a response to the latest electoral exercise. But political parties in the State are confident that the voter turnout will not be dismal. Akbar Lone told Frontline that there was a strong perception in Kashmir that if people did not elect the right candidate, the BJP would get an opportunity to install its proxies. “People saw how their non-participation in the urban local body elections led to the BJP bagging 100 wards in the Valley. They won’t repeat the mistake.”

Why Kashmir’s hinterland votes

Senior leaders across the political spectrum who spoke to Frontline offered a more nuanced insight into the political processes in Kashmir. They said that over the decades, New Delhi had successfully created a structure of dependence on the mainstream political leadership, particularly in villages. There was a “chitthi likhwa ke lao” culture, they pointed out. “Unless people get recommendation letters from the local MLA or MLC, the construction or improvement of civic facilities and infrastructure is not possible. At the time of election, they have no choice but to participate in it to return the favour,” said a senior Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader.

This structure of dependence manifested itself at a People’s Conference (P.C.) leader’s house at Harie village in the far-flung Kralpora tehsil of Kupwara district. P.C. chairman Sajjad Lone was camping there on the night of April 1, meeting his party’s block-level functionaries, amid heavy security deployment. The bargain was intense. A block leader promises 300 votes to the P.C. in exchange for fulfilment of his demands: one, the installation of a transformer and two, the construction of a 2-km-long metalled road. As he is about to list a third one, Lone interrupts with a friendly grin: “Treh haath vote-o badleh karyeh soorey Hindustan naavas che [I can’t give you entire India for your 300 votes].” People laugh. The man relents.

Dependence on the Army

Another reason for the turnout, a National Conference (N.C.) leader in Baramulla said, was the military’s influence on the life and livelihood of people residing in villages nestled around Army camps. There is no coercion involved, clarified the N.C. leader, but the constant vigil of the forces leads to a culture of acquiescence. In Boniyar tehsil, encircled by pine and cedar mountains and home to the Pir Panjal Brigade, villagers seconded the thought. Shopkeepers, labourers and other locals, who were part of Akbar Lone’s well-attended rally at Boniyar on April 1, told this reporter about their dependence on the Army. “They [the Army] are our employers. Traders, contractors, transporters, people who do menial jobs are hired by the Army on a contractual basis. The Army doesn’t explicitly ask us to vote, but people cannot imagine offending them [by choosing not to vote],” said a shopkeeper.

Vote for governance

Unemployment is marked. When the Army commenced a recruitment drive for porters on March 29 and 31, as many as 15,000 youths from villages around Uri, many of whom were graduates with technical degrees, turned up, local people said. Governance issues are glaring. “There’s no college here, we have to travel to Baramulla,” complained some students. A teenager from nearby Pehlipora village said they had poor mobile coverage and had to walk a kilometre to get network connection. An elderly man from Salamabad Dachina village said there was only six hours of power supply. The exposure to hardship and the impelling need to find a solution to it encourage people to vote. Gurez, Uri, Sangrama, Kreeri, Pattan, Handwara, Kupwara, Sonawari and Sambal are expected to witness brisk voting, but alienation remains as high as in the rest of the Valley.

In the cities, in particular Srinagar, there is a perception that the Narendra Modi government is deliberately keeping the “pot boiling” in Kashmir. In its cover story “The game plan”, Frontline (July 20, 2018) had rightly predicted: “What is bound to be projected in the days to come is a new polarising game with a narrative pitting ‘Hindu India driven by the forces of Hindutva against Muslim Kashmir, which is in collusion with the enemy country Pakistan’. The narrative naturally reasons that the ‘only possible denouement of this situation would be in establishing the absolute supremacy of Hindutva forces over the political establishment of India’....”

Doval doctrine

The Modi-Ajit Doval muscular policy continues in the run-up to the election. On March 28, two youths were injured in alleged firing by security forces at a protest site at Kuger locality in Kulgam district. On March 29, the Army carried out two separate operations in Shopian and Kupwara districts, eliminating four militants. On April 2, in an encounter at Lassipora, Pulwama, four militants were neutralised.

Provocative sound bites from New Delhi pepper the canvassing. On March 28, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stirred up a row over Article 35A, describing it as an impediment to development. Four days later, on April 1, BJP president Amit Shah pronounced a 2020 deadline for its abrogation. On March 29, the Centre set up a Terror Monitoring Group for Jammu and Kashmir. According to media reports, its mandate includes “initiating action” against “terrorist sympathisers”. The Central agencies attached property belonging to Hurriyat Conference leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Shabbir Shah. Political observers see this persistent crackdown in the Kashmir valley as the BJP’s overt pandering to the predominantly Hindu electorate across the Pir Panjal range.

Militants have been too willing to press the trigger. On March 30, a grenade was hurled at a Central Reserve Police Force bunker in Pulwama, injuring a soldier. On March 28, there was a powerful blast close to a forces’ bunker in Srinagar. A Special Police Officer, Roman Rashid, was shot at by militants at Baghaat area in Srinagar on March 27. Prof. Muzaffar Ahmad of Government Women’s College, Srinagar, said that the escalation of violence was also influencing people to not venture out on election day.

Turnout in cities

But the N.C. is confident that its candidate from Srinagar, Farooq Abdullah, will win. The party is working round the clock to ensure a good turnout. The focus is on Kangan, Ganderbal, Khansahib and Sonawar Assembly segments. Giving Abdullah some competition are Aga Syed Mohsin of the PDP and Irfan Ansari of the P.C. In Srinagar and Budgam, a cross-section of people were sceptical about the decision of not holding simultaneous Assembly and parliamentary elections. Their scepticism is shared by the political parties in Kashmir. While Omar Abdullah accused Modi of surrendering “to Pakistan, to the militants and to the Hurriyat”, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said the “decision to hold only parliamentary elections in J&K confirms sinister designs of Government of India”.

Frontline has information that although all political parties, save the BJP, were in favour of simultaneous elections, the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, S.P. Pani, threw his weight behind the State Police, which wanted only the Lok Sabha election to be held. The Director General of Police, Dilbagh Singh, is believed to have seconded the idea. Informed sources said the police red flag came as a boon for the BJP, which was looking to buy time in order to revive its failed third front experiment. Insiders in the P.C. revealed that its alliance with the BJP was “very much in place”. The strategy is to enable the P.C. candidate Raja Aijaz Ali’s victory in Baramulla, which would pave the way for the expansion of its presence across north Kashmir.

If Lone’s party is able to win around 15 seats in the next Assembly elections and the BJP repeats its sweep in Jammu, it will accomplish what the Centre failed to do in June 2018 when, after unceremoniously bringing down the Mehbooba Mufti government, attempts were made to poach MLAs from the PDP and form a BJP-P.C. coalition government with Sajjad Lone as Chief Minister. The delaying of the State election gives the BJP and the P.C. ample time to work on this strategy.

Discussions with senior officials in the security establishment brought out the point that their position in Kashmir is vulnerable as they have been the first target of militants in the past couple of years, and that attributing the decision of withholding the Assembly elections to them will make their position even more vulnerable. A senior official in the security establishment told Frontline: “Do you think the police of this country can make such big decision? Do you think if the government wanted election, the police would be in a position to stall it?” The official concerned did not deny the police red flag, though; he added that “there are other parameters that go into deciding it”.

There is a general agreement that the BJP and the P.C., who are in a covert alliance to win the next Assembly elections, are the beneficiaries of the delay in holding the elections.

BJP-P.C. mission

The BJP-P.C. blueprint to capture power in the State, said sources close to Sajjad Lone, is drawn around a three-point formula. One, the P.C. is aiming for further defections from the PDP to grow at its expense in Baramulla and beyond. Two, it is harping on an anti-Delhi rhetoric and maintaining a tactical distance from the BJP. Three, it is using its proximity to the Centre “to get work done” in the hinterland and it hopes that its politics of incentivisation will pay dividends in the Assembly election.

A whisper campaign questioning the “faith” of the N.C. leadership is being carried out to negate the N.C.’s resurgence in the Valley. A top leader of the P.C., who did not want to be named, made no secret of that plan while talking to Frontline. “Kashmir is a closed society; people do not like those who have adulterated their Islamic identity. What is his [Omar Abdullah’s] faith?” he asked, alluding bluntly to the history of inter-religious marriages in the Abdullah family. “If one starts talking about it, his party would be left scrambling in the electoral map of the State. I’m not saying that a non-Muslim is not acceptable to us. A Hindu can lead us, as a Hindu is not seen as an enemy in Islam, but those who are born into Islam but ‘adulterate’ their identity, certainly are.”

The leader said it was by virtue of his party’s nexus with the BJP that it had emerged as a formidable player in two parliamentary constituencies (Srinagar and Baramulla). Sitting inside a closed antechamber, where at least two dozen party functionaries were present, he boasts about the P.C.’s moves to splinter the PDP. “Yahan to pura toda usko, har jagah todenge [Here, we splintered it completely; we will do that everywhere].” People cheer him energetically.

At Langate main chowk, where a few shopkeepers have assembled at a dhaba for their evening tea, there is unanimity that Raja Aijaz has good prospects in Baramulla. “Sajjad Lone hasn’t done much work in Langate, but Irfan Panditpuri, who was the PDP’s candidate in 2014 for the Langate Assembly seat, has switched over to the P.C., transferring his nearly 16,000 votes to them,” said Tanveer Ahmad Bhat, a contractor, and Baseer Ahmad Lone, a shopkeeper. Others nodded in agreement. In Baramulla’s Assembly segments, the PDP’s ex-MLAs or prominent local faces have deserted it for the P.C. Among them are Imran Raza Ansari from Pattan and Abbas Wani from Tanmarg. In Rafiabad, Congress leader Abdul Gani Vakil has moved to the P.C. The competition is close, but Akbar Lone may scrape through. The PDP candidate, Abdul Qayoom Wani, a trade union leader, is likely to finish third. Independent candidate Engineer Rashid’s influence is limited to Langate. The Congress has fielded Haji Farooq Mir.

The calculation in the P.C.’s war room is that a win or even a close finish in Baramulla will “change the algebra of the Assembly elections”. “If we win Baramulla, the Congress and the N.C. together will once again stop at 27 plus/minus two in the next Assembly election. Our tally will swiftly move past 15, to possibly 20,” said a P.C. strategist.

Sajjad Lone maintains that attempts to link him to the BJP are part of a smear campaign originating from Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti’s stable. He described both of them as “New Delhi’s real poster boys and girls”. He told Frontline: “The person [Omar Abdullah] who in 2010 ‘mowed down’ 140 people, whose father is the creator of ikhwan that killed thousands of non-combatants, whose grandfather invented the Public Safety Act to stifle political dissent, is pointing fingers at me!”

When this reporter asked him to clarify his party’s current position vis-a-vis the BJP, Lone evaded the question by continuing to harp on the N.C. and the PDP’s past record of alleged injustices in Kashmir and their allegiance to New Delhi. “If you remove Delhi from their biodata, where will they stand?” Lone asked, adding curtly: “Omar will be washing dishes at Oberoi and madam [Mehbooba Mufti] will be working in that bank where she was working.” Lone said that the two former Chief Ministers were upset with him as he had come close to ending their “entitlement” to the State by emerging as a credible, alternative choice.

Jammu still polarised

In Jammu, at Resham Ghar locality, where the Congress’ Jammu candidate Raman Bhalla and State Congress president G.M. Mir arrive to the beating of drums and the showering of rose petals, a vibrant election season is in full bloom. The number of women surpasses the number of men in the rally, and having noticed it, Mir and Bhalla direct the focus of their speech on inflation, on Modi’s betrayal of the Women’s Reservation Bill; they talk about the Congress’ commitment to women’s emancipation. The thumping response of the crowd is in sync with Bhalla’s personal goodwill across Jammu. And yet, it would be an arduous task for the Congress to win Jammu which it lost by over 2,50,000 votes in 2014. The tacit support of the N.C. will help it in Rajouri and Poonch-Haveli Assembly segments, but the shadow of the Modi factor looms over its prospects. Although there is general disenchantment with the BJP candidate and incumbent MP, Jugal Kishore, people across Jammu, and in neighbouring Udhampur constituency said they would vote for the saffron party since the election was ultimately about “electing the Prime Minister”.

At Shiv Nagar in Udhampur, a group of men having lunch at local eateries were vocal about supporting Modi. “The BJP may see some reverses in the Assembly election, but here Modi is the factor. We want him to return to power; he is a strong leader,” said a PHE employee, Chain Singh. Roughly 20 km from there, at Krimchi village, the same sentiment resonates. “Rashtra nahi to kucch nahi [Nation is first],” remarks Pawan Singh, a local man. At Rathian, near Udhampur-Srinagar highway, a physical education teacher says he will vote for the Congress candidate in Udhampur, Vikramaditya Singh, son of Karan Singh and grandson of the erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh. After a glance at the saffron flags unfurled atop numerous houses, he sighs despondently, “Modi hasn’t delivered but he knows how to stir passion.”

Congress’ cards

The Congress is playing its cards well. At the Resham Ghar rally in Jammu, its volunteers ardently chanted “Jai Sri Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” slogan, and at Jadd village in Debhra tehsil in Udhampur, Vikramaditya Singh played out his Dogra identity. The Congress is circumspect on contentious issues such as Articles 370 and 35A, which the people of Jammu, unlike their counterparts in Kashmir, would prefer abrogated. Vikramaditya Singh evaded the question when this reporter asked him about his position vis-a-vis the State’s special status. “Let’s not politicise it. It is a complex constitutional issue. Let us first understand what role it has played in the integration of the State and whether the benefits of such a provision are percolating down to all or just a handful.” He leaves the statement hanging.

Even at the height of the Modi wave in 2014, the BJP was able to win Udhampur by merely 60,000 votes. Its challenges are enormous this time. Former Minister Lal Singh, who has considerable influence in Kathua, is an independent candidate. The Rajput votes are not likely to consolidate in favour of incumbent BJP MP Dr Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office. The National Panthers Party has fielded a Rajput candidate, Harsh Dev Singh. He is expected to cut into the important Thokar community votes in Udhampur, Ramnagar, Chenani and Reasi. Vikramaditya Singh, too, is a Rajput. He is helped by the fact that in the absence of any candidate from the N.C. and the PDP, the Muslim vote will not splinter in the Chenab valley. But his victory is not guaranteed.

 

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