Hindu nationalist party is hoping to secure a coalition government in disputed region as state polls begin.
As armed police in bulletproof vests patrolled the tense streets of India’s only Muslim majority state, Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Avatar Singh forecast victory for Hindu nationalists in Kashmir’s upcoming elections.
“My godfather Modi Ji’s development initiatives make me confident that I will win,” Singh said, referring to India’s new prime minister while out canvassing in the town of Tral last Thursday. Just hours later, three suspected separatist rebels were shot dead in a stark reminder of the tensions in the picturesque Himalayan region, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has been the scene of two wars between the neighbors.
About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence or for its merger with Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the violence. So the idea of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP taking even a share of power in Kashmir would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
But Modi’s landslide May general elections win and a meltdown in support for the incumbent chief minister after deadly floods in September have given the BJP hope of a breakthrough. Separatist hardliners have called for boycott of the vote, a move that could play to the BJP’s advantage. Voting begins in the five-phase election on Tuesday, with results due on Dec. 23.
Analysts say the BJP is almost certain to fall short of an outright majority in the 87-member assembly. But they also say it has drawn up a strategy of military precision to mop up in the Hindu majority Jammu area, and then cut a deal with one of the smaller Muslim parties to become the lead player in a coalition.
“Jammu is like a launching pad,” said Mehmood-ur-Rashid, an analyst based in Srinagar. The BJP battle-plan is “to sweep Jammu, and then cobble together some kind of a loose coalition with individual winners in Kashmir,” he added.
Speculation is rife that the BJP will link up with the small People’s Conference, a formerly pro-separatist party, which now argues that economic growth is the best way of improving the lives of Kashmiris. Its leader Sajjad Lone met Modi this month in Delhi, telling reporters he had felt “respected and humbled” by the talks.
The BJP is even fielding 32 Muslims candidates in the 70 seats it is contesting, including 25 in the restive Kashmir Valley. The party won 11 seats in the last elections in 2008, its best ever performance.
The BJP is enjoying a honeymoon period after Modi’s victory over the previously ruling Congress party, winning a string of state elections since May. Singh, a member of Kashmir’s small Sikh population, hopes to persuade voters that Modi’s party is best placed to improve their livelihood by pointing to green shoots of recovery at national level.
Modi has made five visits to the state as premier, including during Diwali last month when he promised more flood relief. “We in the BJP consider Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as extremely close to our hearts,” Interior Minister Rajnath Singh said at a rally last week.
One handicap is the BJP’s long-standing pledge to scrap a constitutional provision known as Article 370, which allows Kashmir to make its own laws. Even one of its candidates in Srinagar, Hina Bhat, recently said she would “pick up a gun” if the article was removed.
While talk of scrapping the article plays well at general elections, the leadership has been more circumspect while campaigning in the state. “Article 370 is a national issue for us and there should be an extensive debate over its utility,” Rajnath Singh said.
While there is anger over the Modi government’s response to the September flooding, which killed around 200 people, most of the ire has been directed toward Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his ruling National Conference party. Thousands of residents are still homeless as winter sets in. Business leaders have put the total losses from the floods at around $17 billion.
Abdullah has admitted his administration was overwhelmed by the scale of the floods—the worst in nearly a century. He says he is best placed to defend the state’s special status, accusing the BJP of “talking in different voices.”
“In Jammu, they talk about abrogating Article 370 and in the Valley they say that if people want, it will remain,” he told reporters.
Pundits are predicting a major fall in his center-left party’s support. Many commentators have said the real contest this time would be between the BJP and the People’s Democratic Party, which advocates “self-rule.”
The separatist boycott of the polls suffered its first setback in the 2008 elections, when turnout crossed 60 percent. Tral has a history of low turnout and few voters voiced support for the BJP—although Ghulam Rasool, who lives near the candidate Singh, said he would consider voting for the BJP as “he has been a good neighbor.”
Bashir Ahmed Wani, whose son is one of Kashmir’s most wanted militants, said he wouldn’t vote out of principle, but acknowledged that could help the BJP. “Many people may end up voting for the PDP even if they support a boycott as the fear of the BJP winning is worse,” he said.