Pitching up its nationalist rhetoric in the last stretch, the BJP appears to be fast regaining the ground it had lost in Jammu region. With the contest being essentially between it and the Congress, the Hindu votes are polarising behind the party. While Jammu-Poonch votes on April 11, the other seat in Jammu region, Udhampur-Doda, will go to polls on April 18.
The BJP had steadily grown in Jammu region on the back of the 2008 Amarnath agitation. In the Assembly elections that year, it had won 11 of the 37 Assembly seats in the region (from 1 in 2002), and six years later, riding the Modi wave, 25. It had also won both the Lok Sabha seats in Jammu and the sole constituency in Ladakh, despite the Congress and NC fighting together.
But during the three years it shared power with the PDP in the state, the BJP had lost some of the goodwill here. The opinion in Jammu, that traditionally feels neglected compared to Kashmir, was that it had not got its due despite seeing the BJP into its first government in the state.
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Now the support for the BJP along religious lines seems even more than pronounced than in 2008. While in Jammu-Poonch, Hindus and Muslims are in the ratio of 60:40, in Udhampur, the two communities are evenly matched.
Relegating development, unemployment and other regional issues to the background, the Congress is also focusing on the worsened situation on the border to attack the BJP — though it is arguable how much that is benefiting the party. The result being that days before voting, what seemed like a tough contest for the BJP on both seats now is evening out.
At his March 28 speech in Akhnoor, launching the BJP’s campaign in the state, PM Narendra Modi said terrorists and Pakistan wanted him to lose and the Opposition to win. He also accused the Congress, NC and PDP of having “sleepless nights” because of the “crackdown on terror”.
At his rally in Surankote, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who belongs to Jammu region’s Bhaderwah (falling in Udhampur-Doda), talked mainly of the escalation of tension along the border and rise in militant violence, saying the UPA government had brought peace.
Ironically, one of the reasons behind the polarisation is the decision of the NC and PDP to keep out of both the Jammu contests to avoid a split of “secular votes”. The NC is backing Congress candidates in both the seats, while the PDP is indirectly supporting it. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share was 32.4 per cent, followed by the Congress’s 22.9, the PDP’s 20.56, and the NC’s 11.1.
Political analyst Prof. Hari Om says the hard line taken by the NC and PDP in Kashmir is also causing voters to lean towards the BJP in Jammu.
Ankur Sharma, chairman of IkkJutt Jammu, an organisation that has been calling settlement of Muslims in Jammu a conspiracy and a “demographic invasion”, hints at the BJP having “betrayed” the region when in government. But adds that Hindus are an even more consolidated unit in the region now.
Sharma attributed it to issues like “settlement of Rohingya in Jammu”, the repealing of an Act on land ownership rights, an order not to evict Gujjars and Bakerwals from State land, “denial of minority rights to Hindus” and the then state government not ordering a CBI inquiry into the alleged rape-murder of a Bakarwal girl in Kathua.
Shafiq Mir, chairman of the All J&K Panchayat Conference, an organisation claiming to represent over 33,000 sarpanchs and panchs in the state, regrets that with all leaders only talking of India-Pakistan, human rights violations and the state’s special status, it had ended up becoming a BJP vs rest competition. “This was not the case in the last elections,” he says. “Both Hindus, Muslims in the state then had expectations from a Modi government.”