Uphill task for BJP in Udhampur

Rumblings at the grassroots do not corroborate the development narrative that the BJP’s Jitendra Singh is peddling.

Published : Apr 16, 2024 17:09 IST - 7 MINS READ

A visit to the site of the rejuvenation project on the Devika river in Udhampur district revealed that the water body remains a stinking drain.

A visit to the site of the rejuvenation project on the Devika river in Udhampur district revealed that the water body remains a stinking drain. | Photo Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

A social activist was manhandled and forced to leave the stage when he tried to talk about local development needs at a BJP election rally at Sangaldan in Ramban district, which is part of the Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency in Jammu, on April 4. Ashiq Hussain Hajam, who says he is a BJP worker, had been invited to the stage while the crowd waited for Union Minister and party candidate from Udhampur, Jitendra Singh, to arrive.

The rally venue was close to a recently inaugurated railway station that aims to connect Baramulla in North Kashmir to Udhampur. The area now has a newly constructed railway tunnel, the longest in India, while the adjoining Reasi district boasts the world’s highest railway bridge. Yet, the residents of this remote mountain region complain that they do not have basic amenities.

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Speaking to Frontline, Hajam said: “In my subdivision of Gool, not even a cremation ground has been developed under the MP Local Area Development Scheme. The town has a sub-district hospital but it doesn’t have medical staff or an ambulance.” He said that people voted for the BJP because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his welfare schemes but local leaders are inaccessible.

The sentiment resonates across the constituency spread over 16 Assembly segments and the districts of Ramban, Kishtwar, Doda, Udhampur, and Kathua. The constituency will vote in the first phase of the election on April 19. At least 16.23 lakh voters will vote in 2,637 polling stations. There are 12 contestants in the fray, but the main fight is between Jitendra Singh, also the sitting MP, and Choudhary Lal Singh of the Congress.

Lal Singh, a former Minister, won the seat in 2004 and 2009. Jitendra Singh defeated the Congress’ Vikramaditya Singh, grandson of Maharaja Hari Singh, by 3,53,272 votes in 2019. In 2014, he defeated former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad by 60,976 votes.

The BJP campaign for Jitendra Singh has been a star-studded affair with Union Ministers Anurag Thakur and Rajnath Singh, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and Modi as part of the cast. Choudhary Lal Singh has the backing of the National Conference, the Peoples Democratic Party, and the J&K National Panthers Party, which was recently de-recognised by the Election Commission.

While Jitendra Singh does not have any criminal case against him, his election affidavit shows that his wealth more than doubled over the past 10 years. Lal Singh, who was arrested in a money-laundering case in November last year, is out on bail. Both have been using helicopters to campaign in the mountain villages.

Jitendra Singh has adopted a couple of villages under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. During a recent rally in Kishtwar, he faced questions over the plight of Bhatan, which he adopted in 2015. Anshuman Rathore, a local journalist, told Frontline that nothing had changed after the adoption and when he confronted the Minister about it he said the “contractor stole the money and disappeared”.

Residents of Saddal village, “adopted” in 2014, also feel neglected. Asked about the lack of development in the twin tehsils of Warwan and Marwah, which are cut off by snow from the mainland for half the year, all that Jitendra Singh could say at another rally in Kishtwar was that a part of the area had got a cell phone tower because of his efforts.

Last year, he announced that north India’s first river rejuvenation project on the Devika river in Udhampur district, built at a cost of over Rs.190 crore on the lines of “Namami Ganga”, was nearly complete. A visit to the project site revealed that the river remains a stinking drain. “We wonder, where has all the money gone?” asked Mahesh Bangathia, a local activist campaigning for a clean Devika. “Not even a single paisa has been spent on improving the quality of water in the river.”

Political observers say unpopular policy decisions taken by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha’s administration have proved embarrassing for party workers on the ground. RSS foot soldiers also seem disillusioned with the BJP, which has been welcoming political leaders and workers from opposition parties into the party fold.

  • BJP MP and Union Minister Jitendra Singh is seeking re-election from Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency in Jammu.
  • He claims to have worked for the area’s development but local sentiment is contrary.
  • His main opponent, Choudhary Lal Singh of the Congress, seeks votes in the name of popular local demands such as restoration of statehood and special constitutional safeguards for locals.

Jitendra Singh has been upholding the composite culture in his speeches in the hill districts, which have a considerable Muslim population, but not so Yogi Adityanath. He fell back on the party’s polarising rhetoric at a rally in Kathua on April 10 when he recalled the 2006 Doda massacre in which 35 Hindus were shot dead by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants and spoke of special Aastha trains from Jammu, Katra, and Udhampur to Ayodhya. His aim, obviously, was to galvanise votes in the Hindu majority districts which share a border with Pakistan.

“Can any Pakistani dare to infiltrate from across the border and compromise our security? They cannot,” Adityanath said. Border villages have seen a mushrooming of civilian bunkers. Residents credit Modi for peace in the area following the revival of the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan on February 25, 2021. But districts like Rajouri and Poonch along the LoC and some other parts of Jammu, which have been relatively peaceful for several years, have seen a rise in militant attacks after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A).

At a rally in Udhampur on April 12, Modi also brought up the Ayodhya Ram temple as well as the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine, which he had visited ahead of the 2014 election. Claiming that his government had changed the popular mindset in the Union Territory, Modi challenged opposition parties to restore Article 370.

“This is the first election in Jammu and Kashmir when separatism, terrorism, stone-pelting, bandhs, strikes, cross-border firing are not issues… I’ve completely transformed J&K,” he said. “Earlier, whether it was the Mata Vaishno Devi Yatra or the Amarnath Yatra, security of the pilgrims would invariably remain a predominant concern.” He said Assembly elections would be held in Jammu and Kashmir soon, after reinstatement of statehood.

Notwithstanding Jitendra Singh’s claims of “development” in his constituency for the past 10 years, the area’s unemployed youth are not convinced by the feel-good narrative. They point to recruitment scams. There have been protests in Jammu against the Agniveer scheme, discontinuation of old job schemes of the government, and the casual nature of most employment. The dominant view is that non-local people are pocketing government jobs and business contracts.

The BJP harps on the near completion of the Shahpurkandi barrage on the Ravi, which will soon stop flow of water to Pakistan. The work was commissioned over three decades ago and abandoned on several occasions. The dam will irrigate 5,000 hectares of farm land in Punjab and over 32,000 hectares in the arid and rocky Kandi belt of the region. The ongoing construction work on the Tawi barrage in Jammu city, which was abandoned under UPA rule after Pakistan raised objections citing the Indus Water Treaty, 1960, also features in the party’s election narrative.

Lal Singh seeks votes in the name of popular local demands such as restoration of statehood and special constitutional safeguards for locals. So does G.M. Saroori, a former minister and three-time MLA, who is now a candidate of Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP). DPAP leaders were at the forefront of protests when the Manoj Sinha administration ordered the eviction of local people from government land last year.

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“After taking Lal Singh into the party, the Congress has proved that it is RSS’ sister,” said DPAP leader Salman Nizami, recalling Lal Singh’s participation in a rally held in support of the accused in the 2018 case of rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim tribal girl in Kathua. The DPAP is expected to split Congress votes in the Doda-Kishtwar region.

Lal Singh avoids criticising Modi directly but attacks Jitendra Singh for neglecting the welfare of the constituency despite being a Union Minister for two terms. Another pet refrain is the cancellation of land mutation numbers registered in the names of local people who have been cultivating government land for generations.

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