Ruling Jammu and Kashmir remotely since 2018 and resorting to a series of interventions, in the last five years, that changed the erstwhile state forever, the BJP created history by not getting into Lok Sabha contest on three Kashmir constituencies. By formal absence, Humaira Nabi reports how the rightwing party ensured it stayed at the top of the debate

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In the LS elections 2024, the BJP did not contest from Kashmir but existed in the shadows.

On February 6, 2024, the Pahari tribe achieved official designation as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in Jammu and Kashmir, following the passing of the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2024 by the Parliament. This long-awaited recognition came nearly seven months after the bill was initially introduced in Lok Sabha on July 26.

Since the early 1970s, the Pahari community has been pushing for ST status through various state-level civil society groups. In 1991, when the Gujjars and Bakerwals were granted ST status, the Paharis were considered for inclusion in the revised list of ethnicities submitted to the Central government. However, they were ultimately not included. Since then, Paharis continuously advocated for reservation based on their similarities with the Gujjars.

The Paharis’ long-standing pursuit of ST status was seen as a pivotal issue, galvanizing political attention from various parties in Jammu and Kashmir. Over the years, the tribe had sought assurance of ST status from several Prime Ministers, including Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and HD Deve Gowda. Moreover, regional governments had consistently appealed to the central government for the grant of ST status for the Pahari community on multiple occasions.

In this December 2007 photograph, Ghulam Nabi Azad is seen listening to Narendra Modi. Then, both of them were the Chief Ministers.

During his visit to Jammu and Kashmir on October 3, 2023, Home Minister, Amit Shah pledged reservation for the Paharis, a promise that was fulfilled within the subsequent months. This move was widely seen as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) broader electoral strategy and its aspirations toward growth in the Muslim-majority Rajouri and Poonch districts of the Pir Panjal region.

However, as the date of nomination for the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha constituency seat of Lok Sabha ended on April 19, the BJP failed to field any candidate. The decision put a full stop to all the assumptions and presumptions that the ruling BJP was using Pahari ST status to gain a strong foothold in Jammu and Kashmir, a factor that was fundamental to the gerrymandering of the South Kashmir Anantnag constituency.

Ravinder Raina’s Initiative?

Sources suggest that the Jammu and Kashmir BJP chief, Ravinder Raina, himself a prominent Pahari leader, was involved in efforts to grant ST status to the Pahari community. He was anticipating a decision from the party leadership regarding his candidature for the Anantnag-Rajouri seat. Before this, he had taken the case of an IAS officer to his leaders but that was rejected. He was personally part of the panel of candidates that the party had submitted for the berth.

At a point in time, one insider said, he was hopeful of getting the mandate. He had already represented part of this segment in the erstwhile state assembly and the hyperactive stint as party chief had given him some advantage over others. The style in which the hoards of Pahari leaders moved for a tight embrace with him and joined the party indicated that he was a few notches away from getting nominated.

Earlier in March, the BJP had rejected any pre-poll alliance, affirming that the party anticipated a sweeping victory across Jammu and Kashmir. Raina, in a press conference on March 4, stated that the party will contest all five constituencies. “We would not even need a post-poll alliance, as we are confident of winning all seats in the Lok Sabha elections,” he famously said.

A group photograph of 14 Jammu and Kashmir participants in the All Party Meeting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted on June 24, 2021, at his official residence. The photograph marked the beginning of the meeting.

The final decision was delivered by none other than the Home Minister. “Today I have come to tell all the electorate of (Kashmir) valley that we are (BJP is) not in a hurry. When we are able to receive your love and affection, lotus will bloom even in the Valley. There’s no worry,” Shah told an election rally in Jammu outskirts at Manhas Biradari Grounds Paloura, on April 16. He asked voters of Kashmir to give their vote “to anyone but not to three dynastic parties”- the Congress, National Conference and PDP. “I want to tell the youth of (Kashmir) valley they are making propaganda that BJP people want to capture (land of) Valley. We are not the occupiers; we are the ones who win hearts. So, don’t worry.”

This sealed the fate of every aspirant for a BJP mandate in Kashmir and in Jammu.

The Question Remains

It still does not answer the question: why does a party that has Kashmir as part of its DNA set-up skip a contest? This is even though Jammu and Kashmir has been ruled by the party remotely since 2018 summer. During the last five years, it changed almost everything in the erstwhile state – its status as a state and its position as a special state. It binned its flag, constitution, most of the legislation and the system. It delayed the assembly elections and finally, when the Lok Sabha elections were around, it chose three of the six berths – two Hindu-dominated and Ladakh which has almost half of the voters from the Buddhist minority.

Some analysts take a very simple route. They think the BJP leadership acknowledges significant resentment in Kashmir due to the undoing of Article 370. Therefore, the step is seen as a face-saving process. “The Muslim majority in the region is unlikely to support the BJP in the elections,” Zahid Parvaz, president of the Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference Jammu and Kashmir, said.

“Even among the Pahari Hindus, there are several castes that are not aligned with the BJP’s agenda.”

Did the party ever think that it would actually win a Lok Sabha berth in Kashmir?

A more plausible explanation by a Delhi-based analyst – who wishes to stay anonymous, suggests that, for BJP, Kashmir is not in the number-game reckoning. It does not carry any substantial weight in the Lok Sabha given the six berths in the erstwhile state, of which two in Jammu and one in Ladakh, have dissimilar wavelengths than those from the Kashmir trio. The only time when the Kashmir vote mattered was when Prof Saifuddin Soz went against the party whip, polled against Atal Behari Vajpayee and was sacked from the JKNC.

“Why do not you guys understand, the idea was not to win a seat but to avoid a mass verdict against the central government on its Kashmir decisions,” the analyst said. “The idea was to ensure that Kashmir’s two main parties JKNC and PDP must not contest together and make the August 9, 2019, decision-making an issue in a way as if it a referendum on it.”

The fact is that the party has already won the first round of the battle. “The reality is that the elections are being held and both the main parties are fighting against each other. The PAGD is dead against the wishes of the people,” he said. “The casual and ceremonial abandoning of the PAGD indicates the leverage that the Government of India and the BJP has on both the JKNC and the PDP.” Currently in campaigning, both the parties are referring to the “injustice” and a resolve that they will get “the lost” back but the rest of the speeches they spare against each other. Both accuse each other of one or the other thing.

Even in public spaces, people claim as if the decision to fight separately has been incentivised. Those contesting against the two parties say it more openly. “Both Dr Farooq and Omar are out of jail at the pleasure of the BJP,” Sajad Lone said, the other day. “Farooq Abdullah is already found involved in the JK Cricket Association scam, while his son Omar is trapped in the JK Bank scam. Why is the duo enjoying life out of jail?”

NC delegation comprising DR Farooq Abdulah, Husnain Masoodi and Omar Abdullah calls on PM Narendra Modi on August 1, 2019.

Not Missing In Contest

“The Home Minister’s statement that they are in no rush for the lotus to bloom in Kashmir suggests that they are backing the B and C teams,” Omar Abdullah recently said. “Their leaders visit Srinagar, but their interactions and meetings reveal their involvement in the electoral contest, albeit not under their own symbol. Instead, they use the apple and bat symbols, which essentially represent the BJP.”

Omar’s reference was towards the JK Apni Party and JK Peoples Conference, represented by Syed Altaf Bukhari and Sajad Gani Lone. When BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir In charge Tarun Chug was seen leaving from Bukhari’s City Centre residence along with Sajad, it initially was seen as a sort of scandal. Everybody initially tried to explain it their way taking health and family relations as a way out. It was much later that Bukhari openly admitted the meeting insisting that he is publicly meeting people and that he is publicly saying that he supports the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Altaf Bukhari in Delhi

“I am openly saying that I am with the Prime Minister of India, why should you say indirectly,” Bukhari recently said. “The people who gave protection to our land and jobs are the same people who abrogated Article 370.”

The Alliance

While the people expected the JKNC and PDP will get into alliance, the turn of events led to an understanding between the so-called B and C team. Initially, it was said that there were efforts to have some sort of an alliance between JKPC, Apni Party and Ghulam Nabi Azad led party. It did not happen.

JK Apni Party founder Syed Altaf Bukhari at his party headquarters in Srinagar for a presser on April 24, 2024. KL Image Masood Hussain

In the subsequent days, JKPC nominated its leader from north Kashmir and the Apni Party did not field anybody. Soon, the Apni Party fielded Zafar Iqbal Manhas from South Kashmir and JKPC did not. Then, Sajad Lone formally sought support from the Apni Party and they graciously extended it. In reciprocity, Lone will support the Apni Party in South Kashmir.

“We both (JKPC and Apni Party) are against the old system of exploitation by these traditional parties which resorted to emotional politics for 70 years,” Bukhari said while explaining the ‘alliance’. “We attempted to bring in Azad Sahab but he had some problems,” Bukhari said the traditional parties lack a right to perpetually lie to people and make promises that they cannot deliver. “They are talking of unity and then Mehbooba Mufti broke the PAGD.”

This alliance is expected to be supported by the BJP informally. Ravinder Raina, who was aspiring to contest personally and speak in the Lok Sabha may eventually vote for a non-BJP like-minded candidate this time.

The Flip Side

While Raina maintained that he along with his workers support core BJP leaders’ decision on Jammu and Kashmir, BJP’s Kashmir spokesperson Altaf Thakur told media that the party’s decision not to field candidates from Kashmir has taken a toll on the workers’ enthusiasm in the region. The party has been dishing out numbers about their surging membership in Kashmir.

One candidate in the fray said that he was approached by a district-type leader of the party offering support. “I do not require,” I told him, “I knew if I accepted I would be asked to pay for it.”

Sajad Gani Lone after taking oath of office as a minister in Mufti Sayeed-led government in 2015. KL Image

While it looks like the BJP cadres will support the like-minded, people knowing the pulse of the people suggest it will impact the turnout. “What is the attraction for a voter to actually cast the vote,” one college professor, living in the heart of Srinagar, said. “Two like-minded people (NC and PDP), separated by politics are contesting against each other. One of them will win, what is the difference? Had there been BJP around, it would trigger some kind of hate and interest in the vote, which is missing.”

Battling With

The BJP is not missing on the ground. The way Kashmir’s two main contestants – JKNC and PDP, are accusing each other of being close to BJP, essentially suggests that the right-wing party exists. JKNC has perpetually portrayed PDP as the “Trojan horse with non-existent on-ground presence”, especially after 2019. Now this sentiment is in the air, more often.

“If we have to defeat the BJP here, and the powers spreading poison in the whole country, then people should look at INDIA alliance leaders on all five seats of JK. All others are connected to the BJP in some way. Be it the ‘A’ or ‘B’ team that meets Tarun Chugh sahib or PDP,” Omar Abdullah said. “I am assuming that now Mehbooba Mufti will put pressure on the BJP to get Mushtaq Bukhari’s statement changed. PDP has joined BJP as its ‘C’ team.”

File image of Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Omar’s remarks surfaced after erstwhile JKNC leader and Minister Syed Mushtaq Bukhari deserted the party, cooled his heels for some time, and joined the BJP after the community got ST status. In a video, which is being circulated widely on social media, Bukhari is heard cautioning members of the Pahari community to stay vigilant against individuals exploiting their community for political purposes. He urged them to support PDP President Mehbooba Mufti, highlighting her as the only political leader who actively advocates for the Pahari community.

“I encourage people to back Mehbooba Mufti, who has consistently advocated for our rights,” Bukhari is heard saying. “Alternatively, Zaffar (Iqbal) Manhas (Apni Party candidate) is also a good choice. There is no way people here are voting for Mian Altaf, given his past actions harming the Pahari community.” Similar reports are in circulation about ex-PDP MLC Asgar Ali urging people to vote for PDP.

The hurt and anger that Omar’s statement generated is audible. “We are thankful to Omar Abdullah for giving us a grade. He must know who is the A team,” erstwhile officer and PDP leader Naeem Akhter said. “By breaking PAGD, he hurt the feelings and sentiments of the people. He should not have said things like this.”

Given these statements publicly by almost every contestant, is not BJP in the contest? They all are contesting either in love, liaison or hate of the ruling party. BJP is not out of the contest in Kashmir.


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