A Bilateral Battle

There are 24 people in fray for Udhampur-Doda seat, one of the largest Lok Sabha constituencies in J&K. But the real fight is between Congress and the BJP, reports R S Gull

Ghulam Nabi Azad with his son during a poll campaign in Udhampur constituency.
Ghulam Nabi Azad with his son during a poll campaign in Udhampur constituency.

Udhampur constituency exhibits a complete contrast to the Jammu that polled on Thursday. Given the number of contestants, people might be under the impression that it is a huge battle, but the fact is it is all about two parties, Congress and the BJP. The rest are either too petty to retain their security deposit or simply players trying to keep their vote share intact.

Unlike other places where BJP and Congress are pitted against each other, it is not a contest between ‘secularism’ and communalism. It actually is a fight between a person and an ideology: Ghulam Nabi Azad versus BJP.

This constituency has a very interesting past. The trends the last two exercises – 2008 assembly polls and 2009 Lok Sabha election, exhibit certain indicators for a possible evaluation.

Of the 17 assembly segments making this Lok Sabha constituency, 2008 assembly poll witnessed Congress emerging as a leader in eight seats followed by BJP having four as NC and Panthers Party had two seats each leaving only one to an independent. While BJP ended a runner up in seven seats, NC was No 2 in four, Panthers Party at two places and Congress at one place. Remaining three seats had independents as runner ups.

In the Lok Sabha election that took place in 2009, NC and Congress were allies and fought it jointly with Chadhuary Lal Singh of Kathua fielded for the second time. Though Congress won the seat, the election threw up BJP and Congress as equal leaders with seven seats each and Panthers Party improved its tally to three. Congress ended up as runner up at 10 seats and BJP at six and, lo and behold, PDP at one seat.

In a single year, the change was visible. The coalition had lost three seats that BJP gained. Even Panthers improved. PDP that lacked a foothold, ended up as runner up at one place.

Experts interpret outcome of elections in two parameters – seats won and the voter share that parties secure. This is how the vote share was shared by the principal parties:

Modi at  Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine while campaigning for its candidate Jitendra Singh Rana.
Modi at Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine while campaigning for its candidate Jitendra Singh Rana.

In 2008 assembly polls, 940245 voters came out to exercise their right of franchise from a total number of 1352519. Congress was the leader with 243106 votes making 25.85% of the total polled votes. BJP was the second important player with 194319 votes making 20.66% share. NC was at third place with 155403 votes which makes 16.52% of the polled numbers. Panthers Party that has a strong base in Udhampur district secured 77027 votes which is 8.19% of the total polled votes. PDP was the last player with no gains but a vote share of 3.16% as it polled 29738 votes.

Situation did change substantially in 2009 Lok Sabha polls when 611725 registered voters from the electorate of 1363060 came out to vote. Congress, that has NCs support as well, polled 231803 votes making 37.90% of the total votes followed by BJP securing 218459 votes (35.71%) as Panthers Party improved its tally by securing 69463 votes and having a vote share of 11.36%. PDP was the last party that had small gains and secured 30294 votes (4.95%).

This only suggested the only force that was growing in the belt was BJP. It improved its vote share by phenomenal 15.05 per cent in a single year. The two coalition partners lost its vote share by 4.47%!

But BJP failed to use this phenomenal growth to its advantage as it started campaigning for 2014 polls under the leadership of Narendra Modi. Riding over the ‘wave’ that the party is still seeing around, an over-confident BJP committed a series of mistakes.

Firstly, when BJP started the reconciliation process with the seven lawmakers who had voted for the ruling coalition in the legislative council polls, it opted to get back only five. The two left out included Prof Chaman Lal Gupta, the senior most right winger who has represented Udhampur seat thrice. BJP considers him to be the main culprit for encouraging the six other lawmakers to vote for Congress when they had their own man in fray in the upper house elections. It created a situation that Gupta survived more humiliated than L K Advani might be feeling at the hands of Modi.

Gupta could not do much. He has fielded his son Anil Gupta from Udhampur. The family has some influence in the district but can never be winners. But they will definitely reduce the fortunes of the BJP from the region because both BJP and Guptas’ have the same vote bank.

Secondly, BJP decided to field Dr Jitendra Singh Rana. With his roots in the Chenab Valley, Dr Rana is a specialist in managing diabetes, a frequent writer with good oratory skills. Considered to be an old RSS man, Dr Rana was pitch forked by the party as one of the national spokesmen. Soon he was selected to contest from Udhampur.

It triggered a crisis within the BJP. Most of the state leaders wanted Dr Nirmal Singh, an old BJP man, must get the chance again. He had lost last two elections just by a whisker. Dr Singh, who teaches history in the University of Jammu, lost 2009 Lok Sabha poll by a margin of 13395 to Congress’s Lal Singh. Earlier in 2008, he was trounced by Congress’s Raman Bhalla by 2263 votes. So harshly was the decision reacted by the cadres that Avinash Rai Khanna who is managing the party in J&K was kept hostage by Dr Singh’s followers in Shakti Nagar for many hours one day. It took the party many days to tackle Dr Singh. But insiders say it will have an impact on the prospects of Dr Rana.

Congress had a serious disadvantage to its credit, initially. That was the decision of fielding Lal Singh, for the third time. Party leaders had found so much hate against Lal Singh, especially in Muslim belts that they campaigned against him and forced a change in the party decision.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, health minister in the Manmohan Singh’s cabinet was the most popular choice in Congress as well as in NC. But Azad was unwilling for various reasons and made it public also. He finally agreed to contest for the first time from his home constituency. Party cadres have been asserting throughout that Azad’s candidature will not only make the party win the seat but will have positive impact on Jammu as well. Azad’s candidature was yet another serious problem that went against the BJP. The only hitch, according to party insiders, is Lal Singh has publicly assured support but is working against the party. That is perhaps the reason why Azad is spending more time in Kathua than in Doda or Udhampur.

But Azad in Chenab Valley is not a only Congressman but also the son of the soil who has made it to the high offices in Delhi and in Srinagar. A Kashmiri speaking Jammu Muslim, he could be the only choice of becoming the Chief Minister from the region again and that is his USP. His popularity in the region transcends faiths and communities. It was demonstrated in April 2006 when as Chief Minister he contested from his home constituency, Bhaderwah and never campaigned. He defeated BJP candidate Kaushal Kotwal by a margin of 58015 votes as the latter had secured 4057 votes only.

As he finally agreed to contest from home for the biggest house in India, Azad has done some spade work. Ahead of the model code of conduct, Azad announced five medical colleges in the state – two in his constituency! There are reports that the tunnel connecting Doda with Kashmir has also been approved.

Many pessimists in his support base have a word of caution. “Azad will sweep most of the Muslim vote but there is a strong Modi wave in Hindu belts,” said one of his voters in Banihal. “BJP-RSS is seeking vote for Modi and not Dr Rana and they have invoked Kishtwar riots in a whisper campaign.”

The most interesting part of the Udhampur story is the behavior of the PDP – a party that is aggressive seeking a regional character at a time when coalition politics has literally shrunken NC to the valley. After Congress changed its candidate, PDP reviewed its strategy for Doda-Udhampur region where it fielded an erstwhile NC contractor Arshad Malik. Mufti Sayeed had at least eight public meetings scheduled in the region but all were cancelled. It has tacitly surrendered for Azad as, what many in the party say, “a goodwill gesture” – the same Chief Minister whom it toppled at the peak of 2008 turmoil. But after witnessing Jammu turnout and the response to its aggressive campaigning, Ms Mufti started selective campaigning in Chenab Valley. But Omar Abdullah believes and tells people that PDP, is dividing votes to give a tactical edge to BJP.



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