Can Modi net votes in Kashmir?

The BJP’s card tricks in Kashmir had virtually changed the rules of the game before the Assembly elections

Sadiq Naqvi Bandipore/Srinagar 

Boulevard Road along the enchanting Dal lake is unusually calm. Apart from the sparse traffic that plies on this road, the quiet is broken only by the loud calls by the desperate shikarawallahs, who, sensing a possible customer in each autorickshaw and taxi that passes by, virtually try to pull out the passenger. “Yesterday we managed to earn just enough to eat,” says Bashir, pointing to an idle row of shikaras, stacked neatly on the banks of the lake as others, soaking up the lovely winter sun, nod in agreement. The Facebook Deluxe, Eid ka Chand, Deewana and hundreds of other deluxe and normal shikaras have rarely seen customers after the deluge. “The business has come down to almost 10 per cent of what it used to be in the previous years. See that row of houses, right behind the lake, most of us live there,” he continues. “Most of them are destroyed. When the waters of the Jhelum swelled, it took everything along.”

“Many of us are living on boats,” Bashir says, almost teary-eyed. “We have got nothing from the government so far. The compensation will be usurped by the rich and the powerful, the same way they have managed to take control of the shikaras through their proxies.” Many of the shikaras on the Dal are run by the more resourceful houseboat owners and sundry businessmen. “But we will vote. This government needs to go,” he says with grit. The discussion then shifts to the high-profile campaign of the BJP in the Valley where money and muscle are on display.

 “Why should we be afraid of Modi?” Bashir asks. “The BJP should also get a chance. We have seen all the parties.” He adds that many of the voters around the Dal would still choose either from the People’s Democratic Party(PDP) or the National Conference (NC), the powerful regional players. “There is a certain amount of rigidity when it comes to voting in our locality. The older generation is already aligned with political formations, reluctant to experiment,” he explains.

Meanwhile, 80 kilometres north in Bandipore, a beautiful town beyond the Wular lake, a resident appears perplexed. “This is amazing, how the BJP is going all guns blazing. One wouldn’t have imagined such a thing three months ago when their presence was almost negligible,” he tells another local over tea and lavasa, a local bread. “It is fascinating how many of those who boycotted the last Lok Sabha elections are now ecstatically going around campaigning.”

The curiosity aspect was given a different spin by an Indian Army colonel in the heavily fortified Badami Bagh cantonment in Srinagar. “Mission 44+ of the BJP has unnerved other political parties,” he said. “The BJP’s success in other parts of the country has created some kind of a fear in the minds of political parties here. It is not the same story anymore when captive voters used to keep candidates in a state of inertia. This election is different in many ways, in terms of the agenda, in terms of participation and in the number of candidates.” In Bandipore alone, which was to see more than 70 per cent polling, there were 14 candidates.

“And then all the negative elements have been involved in the process of electioneering,” the colonel added. “After a long time, you’re seeing democracy bustling in Kashmir. There are rallies and road shows. Youth who would pelt stones are now going around campaigning, pasting posters. There has been a role reversal.”

Indeed, with massive road shows, flags, posters and banners all over, the entire landscape wears a festive look reminiscent of the elections in other parts of the mainland before the strict code of conduct kicked in and separated celebration from elections. In the village of Shadipora, on the outskirts of Srinagar, the entire population was out on the road to welcome the roadshow of a local PDP leader. “This is a predominantly Shia village. We don’t follow the boycott call. We vote for the PDP,” a local said. Altaf, a Sunni resident from the other side of the village, too, echoed similar views. “We want development. Boycott only leads to losses.”  

However, in the Valley, there is more to it than just the will of the people to join in the process. Hundreds, categorised as ‘stone pelters’ and ‘troublemakers’ have been put behind bars by the administration. In the interiors, the reports suggest that the security personnel, to ensure that the pro-separatist locals don’t hinder the process, had obtained an undertaking from their neighbours and threatened to arrest their relatives. “The role of the army is also to make the atmosphere conducive for an exercise as massive as elections,” the colonel said.

Locals who have seen several elections, meanwhile, are not too amused. “This is nothing new. These people may be involved in elections but there is no guarantee that they will go out and vote. Or if they will stop protesting. The idea of Azadi is not dead,” a local journalist commented. “I have never voted in my life. Why should I vote? I just can’t say it out loud since I work for the government,” a Kashmir Administrative Services officer told this reporter.           

Elections in Kashmir are a paradox. Supporters of secessionist struggle maintain that these elections are just a drama enacted by the Indian establishment every six years with help from lakhs of security personnel and secret service agencies. The absurdity was visible in plenty an hour later when Congress President Sonia Gandhi addressed a rally at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium where the local candidate, Usman Majeed, was not visible anywhere around the venue. The local security claimed that Majeed’s car had not been allowed inside the venue through the VIP entry for security reasons. Majeed, a former top commander of the Ikhwan, moves around with several security guards and a bulletproof vest.

At the rally, Gandhi didn’t mention Majeed and spoke of the family ties she shares with Kashmir and how the BJP government at the Centre did not ensure that enough funds were provided to the state government for rehabilitation of the flood-affected people. She also attacked the communal and divisive politics of the BJP. From the same podium, senior Congress leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Congress state unit president Saifuddin Soz had to furnish the excuse that Congress policy does not allow them to name or share the stage with the local candidate. A local strongman, Majeed is said to be among those few candidates from the Congress party who may make it to the next Assembly. Even though his wife was later seen among a crowd of joyous women singing traditional songs, many of the supporters in the almost 8,000-strong rally were not happy over his absence.   

Meanwhile, the Colonel was hopeful that the national parties (read the BJP) would make a sizeable dent in the support base of the regional players. “We may see the national parties getting more prominence than the regional players,” he said. However, he was quick to add that it was the PDP which appeared the strongest. “Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is a nationalist, unlike the corrupt Omar Abdullah. The NC government used the army to threaten the Kashmiris and, on the other hand, kept threatening the government of India with the anger of the Kashmiri people. This is why Abdullah had to keep the bogey of AFSPA alive.”

Mufti Sayeed, on the other hand, has maintained a silence on AFSPA although he is going all out on the issue of Article 370, telling the people that there is a threat to the autonomy from the BJP, and if they want to maintain it, they better come out and vote.

“Mufti Sayeed was the first one to ask for the repeal of AFSPA in 2007. Now, AFSPA is just one of the issues for us,” Naeem Akhtar of the PDP told Hardnews.   

“The BJP used to be taboo in the Valley. But see how things have changed. They now have an office in the same area in Rajbagh from where the Hurriyat operates. Not just that, they are coming up with a hoarding of Modi at Lal Chowk and in the coming days we might just see the Prime Minister addressing a rally in Srinagar,” the Army official says.  

Indeed, to bolster the hopes of the BJP, which may again score a nought in the Valley, Prime Minister Modi will address a rally in Srinagar and Anantnag on December 6. “The people of the Valley are now looking up to the BJP for development. They are tired of hollow promises by the regional parties and the Congress,” Altaf Thakur, who looks after the communication strategy of the BJP in the Valley, told Hardnews.

Besides Modi, many top leaders of the BJP, including strategist Ram Madhav, who was till recently only associated with the RSS, have been making routine visits to the Valley to take stock of the first high-profile campaign. JP Nadda, who was recently made a Cabinet Minister, too visited the Valley.  Others like Ram Lal are expected to visit in the coming days. “We will have the entire leadership coming to Kashmir and talking to the people,” says Thakur, while adding that many of the Muslim clerics too have been flown in to convince the people.

Interestingly, one such meeting organised by the party where the local clerics were invited backfired after the invitees claimed they were misled into believing it was the Deoband clergy coming to talk about post-flood rehabilitation, whereas the clerics who came were associated with the Jamiat Ulama Hind (JUH), requesting them to help the BJP. Thakur explains, “We invited clerics like Maulana Sohaib Qasmi of the JUH and Haji Tanweer of the Delhi Imam Association, besides others to bolster our support.”  

“It is because of the policies of the NC and the Congress that the BJP gained ground. They may now be the main opposition,” says Naeem Akhtar of the PDP. “They are banking on communal polarisation in the Chenab and Pir Panjal valley. They want to consolidate the Hindu voters in Jammu and divide the electorate in Kashmir,” Akhtar claims. “What explains the emergence of seven new parties in the last three months? They are all proxies of the BJP. Even if they manage to get 500 votes each, it will upset the calculations of other candidates.” Moreover, the BJP has also made alliances with the likes of Engineer Rasheed and Sajjad Lone.

“The BJP has changed the rules of the game here. The moment they brought in Lone, a former member of the Hurriyat, separatism went for a toss,” the Army official explained. “This is why even the Hurriyat had to bend backwards. Syed Ali Shah Geelani had to take back his boycott call lest the migrant votes decide the winner in favour of the BJP. It is leading to some kind of counter polarisation.”

And even for people like Lone, it is a matter of survival. “It is politics of opportunism that works in Kashmir. People like Lone too have to keep afloat. He had no other option,” the colonel said.  

Indeed, Kashmir is headed for interesting times. As Akhtar puts it, “Once the results are out, there is a possibility that the tail may wag the dog.” 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2014