“We have bled and continue to bleed; but have the people of India shed a single tear for us? We have cried but nobody has listened to our voice. We would rather go to hell than stay with India“, a disillusioned Abdul Gani Lone had thundered in the year 2000. Always termed as a “moderate voice” of the Hurriyat, Abdul Gani Lone was also a four-time MLA in the Jammu & Kashmir assembly – for three of those terms, 1967, 1972 and 1977, he represented his home constituency of Handwara. In 1987, Mr Lone lost Handwara by a margin of 1330 votes in a heavily rigged election – a huge geo-strategic error by the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, which cost us almost three decades of bloodshed in the valley.
Today, after being the epicentre of violence and separatism for decades, Handwara is the epicentre of another human expression – DEMOCRACY. Abdul Gani Lone who had moved from the Indian National Congress to the JP movement and the Janata party in 1977 was also the founder of Jammu & Kashmir Peoples Conference (PC in short) in 1983, which was intended to create an alternate pole in the politics of the valley until the rigged election of 1987 changed everything. After its 1987 defeat, the PC is directly contesting the assembly elections for the first time in 2014 and Sajjad Lone, the son of Abdul Gani Lone, is the PC candidate from his father’s bastion of Handwara.
In the run-up to these assembly elections across the valley, most of the local and national parties and contestants have built their campaigns around the sole central idea of keeping Modi away from Kashmir and preventing the BJP from achieving its ‘Mission 44+’. But here in Handwara, the wind is blowing in the reverse direction. Sajjad Lone is the only candidate who has made a virtue of his meeting with Prime Minister Modi. The campaign pitch of Sajjad Lone and his party revolves around the fact that he has a direct link with the Centre (read as Delhi) which, the average voters of this town in North Kashmir, being in awe of Narendra Modi and his friendship with the junior Lone, believe will benefit the constituency.
Kupwara district, in general, and Handwara, in particular, have always been Peoples Conference strongholds. Even in these intervening years, when PC did not officially contest the elections, the party unofficially nominated candidates who would then contest as independents and emerge victorious purely on the goodwill enjoyed by the Lones. For instance, in 2002, the PC-sponsored candidate, Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi had won this seat by an impressive 9% margin – today, the same Sofi is contesting as a PDP candidate against his mentor Sajjad Lone. Even in 2008, while the Peoples Conference did not contest the elections, it unofficially supported some four independent candidates in this district who managed to receive a respectable 18% vote-share and also win one of the seats purely on the Lone goodwill factor.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, when PC contested an election for the first time in 27 years, the party managed to get a respectable 15% vote-share in an otherwise direct fight for the Baramulla LS seat between PDP and NC, wherein Salamuddin Bajad of Peoples Conference actually led in this assembly segment of Handwara (not a mean achievement, considering the fact that PDP had led in 41 of the 46 assembly segments during the LS polls).
The contest here in Handwara today was mainly between Sajjad and Chowdary Mohammad Ramzan of the National Conference. Although rumour has it that PDP and NC have had a secret pact in the last 2 days to defeat Sajjad Lone, today’s massive turnout of 79% and the ground reports are indicating that Peoples Conference is clearly ahead in the race. In the remaining 4 seats of Kupwara district, there was mostly a direct contest between PDP and National Conference, but in at least 2 of those seats, PC candidates have queered the pitch and may play a decisive role in deciding the eventual winner or may emerge as surprise winners themselves.
If that is the story of North Kashmir, then in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district the picture is one of a clear sweep-like condition in favour of the PDP. After today’s polling, it can be said unequivocally that PDP is leading in 3 of the 4 seats of Kulgam district, whereas 1 seat is in the swing category (even Sakina Ittoo of NC is expected to lose Noorabad after Gujjar leaders supported PDP in today’s polls). Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, the lone Communist warrior, CPIM candidate and three-time MLA of Kulgam is locked in a tough battle against PDP. Last time he had won by a margin of 236 votes mainly due to support from the Pandit voters. This time too, the 2910-strong Pandit vote-bank in Kulgam may play a crucial role as the turnout in the constituency was lower than last time at around 55%. Have the BJP and RSS intentionally or unintentionally helped Tarigami gain these Pandit votes here is a question that will only be answered on the 23rd of this month.
As for the boycott call given by the separatists and Hurriyat, it is now almost irrelevant as the voters of Kashmir seem to have completely disregarded the Azaadi voice. Once again, in the second phase of these elections, Kashmir valley has turned up in stellar numbers. Except for the flood-affected Homshalibaugh assembly seat which recorded a low 37% turnout till the latest reports were available, almost every other constituency has created a new record. Generally, South Kashmir has seen lower turnout this time which just tells us that people are not very enthusiastic about voting for PDP. This is a great moment in the recent history of Kashmir as the state is finally putting the ghost of its violent Islamic past to rest and embracing India and the politics of development.
Phase 2 of the J&K polls is by far the toughest phase for the BJP as it is non-existent in both Kupwara and Kulgam districts of the valley and is not even contesting many of the seats, but, more importantly, 2 out of 3 districts that went to polls in Jammu today are Muslim-majority areas – namely, Reasi and Poonch Haveli. Thus, despite all the bravado of ‘Mission 44+’, it was likely that BJP’s best-case scenario for today’s polling was probably not more than 4-5 seats out of 18.
This is why BJP’s strategy of reaching out to smaller parties in Kashmir valley is a brilliant one. By helping these smaller parties, BJP has, at least on paper, tried to ensure that PDP’s march towards winning the state would not be easy. PDP’s best-case scenario at the start of the elections was to win almost all the seats in the Kashmir valley as it had managed to do in the LS polls, but today that seems to be a distant dream as it is facing pockets of resistance everywhere; like say, from PC in North Kashmir and CPIM in South Kashmir.
The very fact that BJP under Amit Shah’s stewardship is dreaming impossible dreams (like going it alone in Maharashtra or trying to win J&K) has come as a surprise to opposition parties and political pundits alike. What is even more surprising though, is the meticulous planning that Shah unleashes in his quest to achieve the impossible instead of simply ‘giving it a try’. For instance, when BJP first announced its far-fetched idea of a ‘Mission 44+’, not many took it seriously either in Jammu & Kashmir or in Delhi, but Amit Bhai went ahead with his plan like a General planning a conquest.
There are two aspects of Amit Shah’s strategic planning that stand out in an election.
Throughout the Jammu & Kashmir electoral landscape, both these aspects keep repeating themselves in a loop. Now consider this – Amit Shah is using the RSS to the hilt by invoking the Sangh’s ideological commitment of “establishing every inch of Kashmir as part of an undivided India” as the cornerstone of his strategy in the J&K polls. Most areas and districts of Jammu & Kashmir have been allocated to specific party functionaries with clear RSS backgrounds while keeping in mind the need for a young team with fresh ideas. What this implies is that, whether BJP wins or loses, the nationalist cause of RSS would be well served.
Thus, the man in charge is former national general secretary of ABVP, Mahendra Pandey, with clear RSS roots. And the state with maximum representation of Karyakartas happens to be Amit Shah’s favourite battleground Uttar Pradesh. Ramashish Rai, the former national president of BJYM, is heading a team of seven top RSS functionaries from UP, which include Rajesh Senger from Bundelkhand, Bipin ‘David’ Verma of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and others. All of them are working tirelessly towards ‘Mission 44+’, notwithstanding the theoretical impossibility of such a task – maximum utilization of resources being the mantra of Shah.
By bringing in a strong young team from UP to manage the elections in J&K, Amit Shah has managed to create a reusable electoral model for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections due in some 2-odd years. What the UP team is learning among other things is to maximize counter-mobilization of Hindu votes in the Jammu region in the wake of Muslim-centric parties creating a ‘vote of fear’ in the valley. Today’s high polling in Udhampur district is an eye-opener in that direction as there was a danger of the Hindu vote getting divided between BJP, Panthers Party and Congress.
Even in the Kashmir valley, this strategy of BJP to counter-mobilize voters, especially of the Pandit community, is crucial to the overall game plan of emerging on top in the J&K assembly. Today’s provisional reports indicate that close to 40% of the migrant Pandit voters did turnout to exercise their franchise – nearly 7k Pandit voters out of a total of 17k. This augurs well for the next two phases when the Pandit vote becomes crucial for the saffron party’s dreams in this Himalayan state.
It is not as if BJP is only depending on counter-mobilization of Hindu votes, for the party under Modi has matured from its Ram Mandir days and has a wider appeal of governance. With the Prime Minister getting ready to address a mammoth rally in Srinagar’s Sonawar Cricket Stadium on Monday, where BJP is expecting an unprecedented turnout of one lakh people, Kashmir is on the verge of entering her own saffron era. Even in Muslim-dominated Poonch Haveli, Modi attracted a huge crowd in his last week’s rally, which has changed the character of the election today.
Of the 5 Muslim-majority assembly segments in Reasi and Poonch Haveli districts of Jammu, BJP had a paltry vote-share of 6% or merely 17979 votes in the 2008 assembly elections. This time the party may triple its vote-share and also has the potential to create a surprise in at least 2 of those assembly seats. This momentum for BJP among the Muslim voters will face its bigger challenge in the next two phases as the saffron party tries to carry forward its Jammu experiment into the valley for a much larger template of Muslim votes.
We have access to poll data for the 9 seats of Jammu region that voted in today’s elections and based on that we can project a very fragmented Phase 2 with Congress and NC losing ground and BJP and PDP gaining proportionate vote-share. Panthers Party, which had won 2 seats last time, is also on a sticky wicket this time with the colour saffron engulfing most of Udhampur. In the 2008 elections, while Congress had won 3 seats, NC and Panthers Party had won 2 seats each, whereas BJP had to be satisfied with the solitary seat of Reasi. This time BJP is emerging in pole position in terms of vote-share and may take the largest chunk of assembly seats.
A problem state that had been at the forefront of violent Islamic extremism for many decades is now finally forging its path towards peaceful democracy. Future generations of Indians will forever be grateful for this winter of 2014 when the tide of the Pakistan-sponsored pseudo-Azaadi movement turned irrevocably towards stability and nationalism. India will long celebrate three men and their vision – Amit Bhai Shah and his electoral strategizing, Ajit Doval and his visionary national security apparatus and, most importantly, Narendra Modi and his inspirational leadership. Future historians will probably term this coming decade as the decade of hope for Kashmir.