Srinagar, Aug. 20: The prospect of voter absence rather than voter turnout is spurring the BJP to targeted pursuit of select Kashmir Valley seats for the first time in electoral history.
Counting on expectation that the Valley’s urban pockets will remain averse to polling, the BJP backroom has begun to focus on a few seats that it believes it can swing with the help of absentee migrant voters. Among these constituencies are Habbakadal and Amirakadal in Srinagar’s downtown, and the town of Sopore in north Kashmir.
Poll-day turnouts have struggled in these seats — an average far below 20 per cent — but there is another reason why they offer the BJP hope for a Valley debut: these are pockets that once had substantive numbers of Kashmiri Pandits, now a community of migrants scattered across the country, but still able to exercise franchise locally.
“Our effort is to locate and consolidate migrant voters and combine them with aggressive campaigning in the Valley,” a top BJP manager told The Telegraph here. “With traditionally low turnouts, we consider our chances good on a fair number of Valley seats.”
Assembly elections are scheduled this winter and the BJP, boosted by Narendra Modi’s majority march to New Delhi, has set itself an ambitious, if also fanciful, target of 44+ seats, which would make a simple majority in the 87-member Assembly and create the unlikely prospect of a BJP government in India’s only Muslim-majority state.
The BJP is currently at its highest Assembly tally of 11, all from the Jammu region. This election could well be the BJP’s most determined Kashmir project ever, no less because the newly anointed “man of the match”, party boss Amit Shah, has taken preparations under his wing.
The Valley-based political adversaries of the BJP — the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party — remain dismissive of the BJP’s pitch and ridicule the possibility of a BJP government, or even a BJP-supported dispensation in the state.
“Even traditionally strong state groups cannot dream of a single-party majority in the state,” said PDP spokesperson Naeem Akhtar. “Not to speak of the BJP which carries a huge sectarian baggage. They may spring some surprises in the Jammu region, but I can’t see them getting very far in the Valley.”
The Muslim-majority Valley makes for the largest chunk in the Assembly with 46 seats; the Jammu region has 37 and Ladakh four. Having won the Ladakh Lok Sabha seat this summer, the BJP fancies its prospects in Leh and Kargil but to get even anywhere close to its 44+ pitch, the BJP must necessarily make its first inroads into the Valley. Which is why the party is telescoping urban seats with influential migrant and non-Muslim numbers.
Another seat that falls in this category is the militant-dominated Tral in south Kashmir, which has a fair number of Sikhs. “Just as in Jammu, the BJP’s effort in the Valley is to polarise the vote for the first time,” alleged NC spokesman Tanweer Sadiq. “Should the BJP succeed, that will inaugurate a new and alarming era in the politics of the state.”
Sadiq charged that the Modi-Amit Shah duo were trying to use the abrogation of Article 370 as a “lightning rod” to polarise the state regionally and communally. “The BJP will and is trying to drive a wedge in the state for mere electoral gains. The danger here is that the state’s various fault lines may come out in the open and the many regions that comprise the state will be at cross purposes,” he feared.
The PDP’s Akhtar sounded equally cautioned and cautionary of the BJP’s emerging strategy. “The politics of divide and rule will push Kashmir into greater and probably unprecedented peril,” he warned.
“The new campaign on abrogating Article 370, which is gaining currency with help from the BJP and the Sangh, is fraught with immense possibilities of disruption. And, let me tell you, the very prospect that the BJP could gain some Valley seats may produce a counter-reaction on the streets during elections. I sometimes fear what the forthcoming campaign may bring because the BJP is bent on bringing its divisive politics beyond Jammu into the Valley.”
The BJP leadership, on the other hand, asserted its right to “seek the Valley’s confidence”, especially now that a new government rules Delhi. If not power on its own, it is making a go for what it calls “controlling stakes” in what most likely will be another fractured Assembly.
“Of course we have a right to bid for power and of course we have said there should be a fresh discussion on Article 370,” the BJP’s national executive member, Nirmal Singh, said from Jammu. “In a democracy no discussion can be wrong. But equally, we want to tell the people of the Valley not to restrict themselves to the Abdullah family and the Mufti family, we want them to join the mainstream of development under Prime Minister Modi, why should they not look at a new party and a new politics? The reception Modiji received in Leh and Kargil is proof people are looking for fresh leadership.”
The jury on the mood of Kashmir, though, will remain out until Modi mounts the poll platform in the Valley. The Amit Shah backroom will probably have to signal the Prime Minister when.