The saffron party’s ambition to win 44 seats in the forthcoming assembly polls may see the first Hindu CM in the only Muslim state in India.
By Vishwas Kumar
The Modi government has a very clear strategy on Kashmir. This relates to its handling of Pakistan, the Hurriyat and Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) itself. And those calling the shots are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. While earlier, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was the moving force behind foreign policy, it is an open secret that now it is Doval. It was his idea to call heads of SAARC nations for Modi’s swearing-in with a view to creating bonhomie among neighbors and establishing the government’s peacenik credentials.
Doval is also credited with the new strategy on Pakistan, says a PMO insider. As a former spy-master, Doval depends on his decade-long experience in fighting Pakistan’s proxy war and classified information passed to him by security and intelligence agencies, to decide the government’s actions. It was on Doval’s advice that the government called off the scheduled foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan, just three months after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made an unprecedented gesture in attending Modi’s swearing-in. Though the official reason given for this cancellation was that Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, had met Hurriyat leaders, according to a PMO insider, this was Doval’s doing. Some people even suggested that Modi took the decision at the behest of RSS hardliners, who are opposed to the government’s “soft approach” towards Pakistan.
The carefully thought-out strategy extends to Kashmir too. The latest move to corner Kashmir’s separatist leaders is keeping in mind the crucial assembly elections in J&K, scheduled for later this year. It is also keeping in mind the latest conflagration in Pakistan, where its army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has launched an offensive against Sharif’s democratically elected government to gain control of its foreign affairs.
As news of Pakistan’s domestic crisis started filtering in, Doval reportedly advised Modi to seize the opportunity. That’s when foreign secretary Sujatha Singh was asked to call up Basit and tell him to cancel the invite to Hurriyat leaders. The logic was that the Pakistan government could not have agreed to such a “request” when it was under siege from the army. Doval’s calculated decision to make the Hurriyat leaders fall guys and Pakistan as the “villain” to India’s efforts to restart the dialogue process, seemed to be working. Both the Hurriyat and Pakistan are now targeting Modi’s government.
The government needs this kind of “outcry” to enthuse party workers in J&K, especially in Hindu-dominated Jammu, where it has launched a mission to win over 44 seats in the 87-member assembly and thereby, chief ministership. The BJP’s attempt to install the first Hindu chief minister in the only Muslim-dominated state in India has put local political players, including separatist leaders, in a tight spot.
Caught in a quandary
Traditionally, the separatist leaders have always boycotted J&K elections. They don’t believe in the Indian constitution and demand independence, both from India and Pakistan. However, this time, the ground situation is different and the separatists are now caught in a bind, as for the first time, the BJP has emerged as the main contender for power. So, if they announce a poll boycott, it will only help the BJP gain more votes and if they don’t, there could be a large voter turnout which will negate their claims that most Kashmiris wants “azadi” (independence).
But the BJP also has to contend with the two main political parties in the state—the ruling National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The assembly seats are spread out across three geographical areas based on different religious identities. Muslims dominate Kashmir Valley, which accounts for 46 seats, Hindus are strong in 37 seats in Jammu region and Buddhists are dominant in four seats in Leh-Ladakh. To reach the half-mark, the BJP will need 44 seats.
The party’s internal feedback is that it has a good chance of grabbing all 37 seats in Jammu and four seats in Ladakh, which adds up to 41. To get three more seats for the magical number of 44, the BJP has adopted multiple strategies. One is to provoke the Hurriyat, whose influence only works in the Valley, to announce a poll boycott and proactively implement it. It also wants Pakistan-based terrorist groups, all controlled and funded by the Pakistan army, to issue threats asking people not to participate in the election, like in the past. These twin factors will reduce voter turnout in the Valley, which, in the 2008 election, was 51.66 percent.
In addition, the BJP has launched a massive drive to enroll all eligible Kashmiri pandits in the voter list and make arrangements for them to cast their votes. They have an option to participate in J&K elections from their resettlement camps.
Past experience tells that the poll boycott call from separatists and terrorists works in six constituencies—Habba Kadal, Sopore, Anantnag, Bijbehara, Amira Kadal and Tral. During the last elections, polling in these constituencies was negligible. But if even a small number of pandits vote in these constituencies, it could help add to the BJP’s kitty.
Sensing the BJP strategy, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah appealed to separatist leaders not to give a poll boycott call.
In an election rally in Srinagar on August 24, he said: “They (BJP) are banking on boycott in Habba Kadal, Amira Kadal, Sopore, Tral, Anantnag and Bijbehara constituencies and believe these are the seats they can have in their kitty. Boycott has not helped in the resolution of Kashmir; boycott has not even helped the separatist leader (Syed Ali Shah Geelani).” He also explained that the BJP was focusing on six assembly constituencies, which have a sizeable presence of Kashmiri pandits. “If the boycott continues, the people of Kashmir would be controlled from somewhere in Nagpur (RSS headquarters) or Jhandewalan (RSS headquarters in Delhi),” he warned.
However, Abdullah’s NC has lost clout in the Valley, as the recent general election results revealed. Both the NC and its coalition partner, the Congress, didn’t get any seat, while the BJP and the PDP won three seats each out of a total of six. These three seats roughly cover 33 assembly constituencies, boosting its “Mission 44” campaign.
On the other hand, the unprecedented floods in the state have cemented the BJP’s position, and even Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Digvijaya Singh begrudgingly admitted the government’s promptness in rescue operation, and the relief grant of Rs. 1,000 crore to the state.
Repealing Article 370
Winning 44 seats will further the BJP’s aim of implementing its long-cherished agenda to repeal Article 370, which gives the state special status. If the J&K assembly passes a resolution to repeal this article and it gets ratified in parliament, it can be done away with, provided it is not seen as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If this article goes, then, J&K will function like any other state and citizens can acquire property there. Gradually, the demography of the region will change.
It was during the 2008 assembly polls in J&K that the BJP’s rise started. It was a surprise winner as, from one MLA in the 2002 assembly elections, it secured 11 seats, making a clean sweep in Jammu and Kathua districts. Analysis of the results showed that it benefited from the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) controversy in July and August 2008. It started when the state government handed over some forest lands to SASB for beautification and construction of more facilities for pilgrims. When the Hurriyat objected to this, the government revoked its earlier decision. The BJP opposed this and launched a campaign. Since Amarnath is one of the most revered of Hindu shrines, the party’s emotive campaign worked during the assembly election.
Subsequently, the party launched an agitation against the “step-motherly” treatment meted to the Jammu region at the hands of a minority chief minister who gets elected on the strength of Kashmir’s voters. This polarization politics worked and solidified BJP’s grip on Jammu region.
It waits to be seen if these strategies will work during the coming polls.