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No-hoper turns No. 1 vote-catcher in Jammu

When Ghulam Nabi Azad contested his first election in 1977, he won just 959 votes and forfeited his deposit. That debacle in Jammu’s Inderwal Assembly segment was enough to keep him away from contesting elections in his home state for nearly three decades.

Today, the outgoing Union health minister is his party’s only potential winner from his home Lok Sabha constituency of Udhampur, in which Inderwal falls.

Azad the Un-winnable has come a long way in 37 years — punctuated by a record 58,000-vote win from Bhaderwah in Udhampur in 2005, when he contested from the state the first time since 1977 after being picked to become chief minister.

The Congress leader has spent 30 years in Parliament, twice as Lok Sabha member from Washim in Maharashtra and four times as Rajya Sabha member, but till now had never been considered for a general election ticket from Jammu and Kashmir.

Before he unexpectedly decided to jump into the fray from Udhampur, one of Jammu division’s two parliamentary seats, it had seemed a cakewalk for BJP candidate Jitendra Singh. Now it seems a close call.

“The Modi wave is limited to television. He has dominated television but the Congress is firmly placed on the ground,” Azad has said.

Azad’s political fortunes in his home state began changing a quarter century after the 1977 rout, when he helped his party win 17 of the 87 Assembly seats in the 2002 state elections.

Three years on, he emerged as the only suitable candidate within the Congress to become chief minister under a power-sharing agreement with ally People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Azad became the state’s first chief minister from Jammu, fulfilling a longstanding demand from the region. His ethnic Kashmiri credentials made him acceptable to the Valley too.

It helped that his wife Shameema Azad was a well-known Kashmiri: as one of Srinagar’s most accomplished singers, she was called the Nightingale of Kashmir.

His trouncing of his BJP rival in Bhaderwah was significant, too, in a communally sensitive constituency where Hindus and Muslims are equally distributed.

As chief minister, Azad quickly gained an image as a pro-development politician. He built Asia’s largest tulip garden on the Dal Lake’s banks, which is today home to one million tulip bulbs and is a huge tourist draw.

In Jammu, Azad brought several places on the tourist map, built a network of roads and launched many infrastructure projects.

He had to quit his chair in 2008 when ally PDP withdrew support following the outbreak of the Amarnath land agitation. Azad shifted to Parliament next year as a Rajya Sabha member.

Azad is now invoking his pro-development image to seek votes and asking people to beware of “divisive” elements.

“Divisive forces are out to create chaos and confusion just to grab power. The people of Chenab Valley (part of the constituency) are known for their secular credentials,” he told a cheering crowd at Bhaderwah.

The BJP is looking to cash in on the so-called Modi wave as well as anti incumbency sentiments.

Hindus make up two-thirds of the electorate in Udhampur although three of its six districts have Muslim majorities. While Azad expects to garner most of the minority votes, he needs a chunk of the “secular” Hindu vote too.

One worry for him is last year’s riots in Udhampur’s Kishtwar district that have polarised the population in several areas, giving an edge to the BJP. No Muslim candidate has ever won the Udhampur seat, anyway.

Outgoing Congress MP Chaudhary Lal Singh, now dumped in Azad’s favour, has been absent from the campaign trail.

The BJP has its share of worries too. One, rebel Chaman Lal Gupta’s son is fighting as an Independent and two, Bhim Singh’s Panthers Party has a strong presence in several Hindu-majority Assembly segments and is expected to split the vote.