A surprise in Jammu

Print edition : March 02, 2002

LITTLE noticed outside the State, the byelection to the Jammu Lok Sabha seat saw intense drama. A surprise victory for the National Conference (N.C.) was preceded by allegations of rigging, a walkout, suspension of counting and, incredibly, a joint call by the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party for a protest strike. The N.C. triumph in Jammu has obvious consequences for the State's politics, since Assembly elections are just months away.

Union Minister Omar Abdullah.-TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

When campaigning began in Jammu, one local newspaper described the election as "a war of the weak". The BJP candidate for the seat, left vacant by the death of BJP member Vaid Vishno Dutt, was a little-known university teacher, Nirmal Kumar Singh. The Congress(I) also picked a new face, Madan Lal Sharma - its successful candidate of 1996 was Mangat Ram Sharma, who, however, performed poorly in 1998 and 1999. The N.C., for its part, changed its decision of 1998 and 1999 to put up a Hindu candidate, and instead picked a Rajouri-based Gujjar leader, Talib Husain.

Two factors may have been key to the N.C. decision. First, the failure of the BJP to contain terrorism in Jammu had alienated the party from many of its core group of voters. While Dutt had won over 43 per cent of the vote both in 1998 and 1999 on the basis of promises to take strong central action against the violence in Jammu, the situation had in fact deteriorated. Second, the principal action that had been taken - the imposition of the Disturbed Areas Act throughout Jammu last summer - undermined the pilgrim tourism industry.

It was clear, then, that the Congress(I), despite its internal problems, would attract significant sections of the BJP's Hindu constituency. Mangat Ram Sharma had won just 18.11 per cent of the vote in 1998 and 18.97 per cent in 1999. Any increase in support for the Congress(I) would clearly have come at the cost of the BJP. The N.C.'s Janak Raj Gupta won 26.81 per cent of the vote in 1998, and Rajinder Chib 22.13 per cent in 1999. This time around, the N.C. knew that even a small increase in this figure would bring it victory if the Congress(I) performance improved. Polling in the BJP's heartlands in Jammu city was low. While the Congress(I) made inroads into urban BJP strongholds, the N.C. was able to garner strong support in Hindu-majority areas such as Vijaypur, Nagrota and Samba.

Within the first few hours of counting, it was clear which way the wind was blowing. At 12-30 a.m. on February 25, the BJP was leading, with 1,84,933 votes against the Congress(I)'s 1,83,058 and the N.C.'s 1,80,177. Some 90,000 votes from the Rajouri and Darhal areas remained to be counted, but both these were N.C. strongholds. Talib Husain was certain to pick up the bulk of the votes from here, and an easy overall victory. The BJP and the Congress(I) then forcibly stopped the counting. The Sapal polling station in Poonch threw up one major controversy. The Presiding Officer had certified that just 25 votes had been polled there, Opposition leaders claimed, but 375 ballots had emerged from the box.

Returning Officer Rohit Kansal suspended counting and referred the issue to New Delhi. Bleary-eyed staff at the counting centre in Jammu received instructions to resume counting at 2-30 a.m. on February 25. At the time of going to print, the final results were still awaiting release by the Election Commission of India. Informed sources, however, told Frontline that Husain had registered a final lead of some 50,000 votes over his closest rival, Nirmal Kumar Singh.

For the N.C., which is besieged in the Kashmir Valley, the news that it retains support in the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu has come as a shot in the arm. BJP politicians in Jammu, meanwhile, have realised that appeals to communal sentiment have a diminishing effect. Union Minister for Food Processing Chaman Lal Gupta had alleged at campaign meetings that there was an enterprise under way to "change the demographic character of Jammu". Speaking to journalists on February 21, he said the "thousands of unauthorised houses coming up are proof of this". However, the Hindu residents of Jammu were clearly unimpressed by warnings of getting submerged in a deluge of Muslims.

Should the N.C. succeed in repeating its performance in Jammu in the Assembly elections too, it could help secure a smooth succession of power - and a transformation in the party's relationship with the BJP. On February 10, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah announced that his son, Union Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah, would replace him as party president after the coming Assembly elections. Although the Chief Minister said he would continue in office if elected, the move is widely seen as a precursor to a transfer of power.

More important, Omar Abdullah has in the past suggested that he does not believe that the N.C. can sustain its relationship with the BJP in New Delhi indefinitely. This is in part because of the efforts made by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to encourage politicians allied with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), and anti-N.C. forces in general, to participate energetically in the coming elections. In a June 2001 interview, Omar Abdullah said he would be "quite happy" to be removed from office. The remark was made in the context of his allegations that the Union government was funding former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party and also secessionist leader Shabbir Shah's Democratic Freedom Party. "Ever since Independence," the Minister said, "the Centre has been pursuing a programme of propping up elements against the N.C."

For the N.C., then, Jammu is an opportunity. It could use the Lok Sabha result to build a genuine secular agenda in Jammu. It could also succumb to the temptation of playing to the Muslim Right, in an effort to consolidate its constituency in Poonch and Rajouri. In its decision will lie not only the outcome of the Assembly elections, but also the future of politics in the region.

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