Early this week, newspaper readers in Kashmir woke up to a first: front-page advertisements of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his election message — “Jammu Kashmir key badley halaat: Chalo chalein Modi ke saath”.
Till a year back or so, the BJP was considered untouchable in the Kashmir valley. It was mostly seen as a party of renegades — those who had worked for the Indian Army in some capacity or the other.
Since it espoused such views as the abrogation of Article 370, it was unimaginable for the BJP to get even a corner space in local newspapers. But today the situation has taken a complete U-turn. Stories about the BJP and its political foray into the Kashmir valley are now splashed across the front pages of local newspapers — both English and Urdu.
Every other day, there is a story or an editorial in the local media that not only gives full coverage to BJP’s poll manifesto, but also discusses its ambitions and agenda in Kashmir. For example, English daily Greater Kashmir carried a lead story titled “J&K parties mum as BJP rakes up Article 370”. Likewise, leading Urdu daily Aftab put on its front page a story titled “BJP trying to come into power in Kashmir for the first time”.
Such prominent coverage of the party was unlikely a year back, so what has led to this dramatic change? Perhaps the answer lies in BJP’s success and Modi’s so-called wave at the national level. Since BJP made a strong comeback in the Jammu region in the Lok Sabha elections held in May, the party’s confidence has increased to achieve its magic “44 plus” mission (simple majority) in the 87-member Legislative Assembly. BJP’s pitch has worked well among those who have aspirations to be in power.
It is true that there has been a strong sentiment against Modi in Kashmir for his inability to contain the 2002 riots as chief minister of Gujarat. But the electorate now seems to be moving beyond their hostility, albeit slowly. The argument emanating from many people who are willing to join and support the party is that Modi is the elected Prime Minister of India and BJP is better than other national parties, which have only been “exploiting minorities” and doing nothing real on the ground. “Even if for the sake of argument one would agree that BJP is anti-Muslim, at least they do not make false promises,” one of the new entrants to the party confided to this writer. He added that “Kashmir needs development and only Modi can deliver on that”.
Modi’s interest in Jammu and Kashmir has also helped him stay in the media limelight. Since May, he has visited the state four times — twice during the floods. Earlier, prime ministers would hardly make a trip in a year. His Cabiet ministers like Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh, Najma Heptullah and Jitendra Singh have made visits to Kashmir and tried to strike a chord with the people. With them being in power, the media can hardly ignore their presence in Kashmir.
Moreover, leaders like J P Nadda (now Health Minister), BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav and current in charge for Jammu and Kashmir Avinash Khanna have almost made Kashmir a base for over a year. Nadda and Madhav were first to reach out to separatist-turned-mainstream leader Sajjad Lone, and that finally culminated in his meeting with the Prime Minister.
Modi is again Jammu-and-Kashmir bound next week, as he will address a few election meetings in the state, including one on November 22 in the Kishtwar town of Jammu division. So, the space in media is surely going to be dominated by his presence. There are also reports that RSS cadres have been camping in various parts of state to see that BJP comes to power in India’s only Muslim majority state.
Even as the Kashmiri media is giving adequate coverage to BJP’s discourse on Kashmir elections, it remains cynical about the party realising its “44 Plus” dream. A prominent English daily, Kashmir Times, wrote in a recent editorial that BJP’s mission is a far-fetched dream: “However, one thing is clear that 44 plus dream or anywhere near would be a remote possibility even if the BJP, by virtue of its being in power at the centre, can employ several methods to influence the voters and also take advantage of the poll boycott in Kashmir and multiplicity of candidates in fray. Going by the party’s previous performance, BJP was in the lead in 25 out of 37 assembly segments in Jammu region during the recent parliamentary polls, solely because of the robust and glamourised campaign built around its prime ministerial candidate.”
Indeed Modi and his media blitzkrieg will not be enough for BJP’s fortunes to turn around in the state. It is difficult to foresee a clear majority for BJP in the state. The party had won just one seat in 2002 Assembly elections and took it to 11 in 2008, owing to polarisation in the wake of the Amarnath land row. Besides banking on the majority of vote share in Jammu, the party is looking at some seats from the valley, like Sopore, Habba Kadal, Tral, Amira Kadal and Anantnag, which witness very low polling owing to boycott. BJP’s management is simple: to woo the Kashmiri Pandit voters and encourage maximum candidates from smaller groups to vote so as to divide the votes that would be polled in these constituencies.
Kashmiri Pandits are registered as voters outside Kashmir and the party is putting all efforts to consolidate them. Thus, the BJP views the boycott called by separatists as the key to opening its account in Muslim-majority Kashmir. With Kashmir having 46 seats and two premier parties — National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — dominating the scene, a simple majority seems unlikely. Both NC and PDP have significant strength in the Jammu region as well. Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that BJP’s fortunes are on the rise and its victory in recent state elections will surely have an impact in Jammu.