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Appearance and reality

BJP’s gains in Jammu might be about identity, but not the way you think

Written by Rekhachowdhary |
January 2, 2009 11:17:01 pm

How does one interpret the massive victory of the BJP in the assembly elections of Jammu and Kashmir? Is it simply the communal polarisation of the Jammu region — a direct impact of the religious mobilisation during Amarnath land agitation? Certainly the BJP’s gain, from one seat in 2002 to eleven now — all in the Hindu-dominated belt of the region — has a reflection of the agitation, and yet the verdict is not as straight as it seems to be.

To begin with, the Hindu belt has not exclusively gone to the BJP; there are many significant exceptions where the party has lost. Of these, the most interesting is the case of Bishnah where it had fielded the widow of Kuldeep Verma, whose suicide during the agitation had generated an intense response in Jammu. It was this constituency which Gujarat CM Narender Modi had chosen to campaign for. This epicentre of the agitation could not be returned to the BJP. There were many other constituencies that had witnessed a strong emotional response during the agitation — such as, Kathua, Samba, Vijaypur and Akhnoor — that remained constantly in the news during the agitation, but did not return the BJP. Another constituency where the BJP faced a setback was Gandhi Nagar, the urban heartland of Jammu where Nirmal Singh, the erstwhile party president, was contesting. Nowshera, Billawar, Ramnagar, Udhampur, Chenani, Chhamb were the other constituencies which saw the mobilisation during the agitation but remained out of the BJP fold.

Interestingly, some of these seats have gone not only to the Congress and the local Panthers Party, but also to the National Conference — a party against which negative campaigns were launched in these areas, and the statement made by Omar Abdullah in Parliament was used to whip up frenzy against the Kashmiri leadership. That the impact of such campaigning had not gone deep could be seen soon after the election process began — the flags of the NC were all over the place.

Like the earlier times, one can see a plural political response in the Jammu region. The seats have been divided between the Congress, the NC, the BJP and the Panthers Party. It is difficult to see the communal polarisation, since the Muslim belt of the region has given as much of a plural response as the Hindu belt has. While in the two districts of Poonch and Rajouri the seats have been divided between the NC, the Congress and the PDP, in the Doda belt — comprising the three districts of Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban — it is the Congress which has registered its dominance, winning five of the six seats. The entry of the PDP is seen by many as an indication of the communalisation of the Muslim belt. Yet one cannot see Muslims in Rajouri and Poonch voting as a bloc for any party, divided as they are between the two identities — Gujjars and Paharis. Doda, meanwhile, is a story of development — it was the most backward and unattended area of the region, which was paid attention to by the Congress government, specifically by Ghulam Nabi Azad, who himself represented one of the constituencies within this belt.

If the BJP has succeeded in Jammu, it is not because of its communal agenda; it is because of many other factors, anti-incumbency working against the Congress being the most important one. The Congress faced problems also due to internal dissensions, wrong candidate choices, rebels and the lack of credible faces. Where it could field a credible candidate, as in Gandhi Nagar, it could win despite the BJP wave. It is a similar story of credible candidates in Kathua where an independent could win despite the constituency being a BJP stronghold.

On the whole, one can say that it was the vacuum of the regional politics that has helped the BJP. Jammu does not have a regional party parallel to the NC. (The Panthers Party is the only regional party of Jammu and it has succeeded in maintaining its position by retaining three of the four seats it had won in 2002.) Hence, the politics based upon the regional aspirations is appropriated by the BJP. The Amarnath agitation in many ways succeeded in Jammu because, apart from the Hindu sentiments, it could mobilise the dormant but persistent feeling in Jammu that this region is politically subordinated to Kashmir and is taken for granted when it comes to political negotiations with the Centre. It is therefore the regional rather than the communal response that has resulted in the BJP’s unprecedented victory.

The writer teaches political science at Jammu University

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