The voter is seemingly angry and frustrated in Jammu, the erstwhile Nagpur of right-wing. Will this lead to a change in the region’s political priorities, however, it is very difficult to predict, writes Khalid Bashir Gura

Follow Us OnG-News | Whatsapp
An aerial view of the Wazarat road, Jammu. KL Image: Masood Hussain

A week after 68.25 per cent (more than 1.1 million) of more than 16 lakh voters sealed the fate of two frontrunners for Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir is due for another black-and-white contest in Jammu (April 26). It is INDIA bloc Congressman Raman Bhalla attempting to wrest the key Hindu berth from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Jugal Kishore, who intends to represent the belt for the third time.

For wooing 16.23 lakh voters (66378 freshers), the two national parties are roping in crowd pullers and star campaigners. Home Minister Amit Shah delivered a fiery speech and Congress’s Sachin Pilot pierced through the Hindiutva agenda.

Though the Modi factor is the focus of the ‘guarantee’ but the August 5, 2019, decision-making has created a situation that is testing the electorate. The reading-down of Article 370 has created tectonic shifts in sentiment and the politics of the place that has traditionally allied with the right wing. Even the anti-incumbency is emerging as a lever. Even Kashmir is a factor in Jammu, regardless of the larger reality that neither JKNC nor JKPDP matters much.

Issues and Headwinds

As was anticipated by Devinder Singh Rana, then with JKNC and now with BJP, that Jammu will take the larger hit with the undoing of Article 370, the region is facing the music. There are myriad issues plaguing erstwhile winter capital, and people do talk about the identity crisis, surging unemployment, massive inflation, lack of tourism, mining of resources, land issues, liquor business, alleged lack of development and other socio-economic crises.

Jugal Kishore Sharma (BJP)

The situation is interesting as the BJP seeks re-election by labelling opponents as dynasts and binning Article 370. It “guarantees” development, welfare schemes and infrastructure development. Holding assembly elections before September 2024 and restoration of statehood are the other two things the ruling party is promising.

For many in Jammu, Amit Shah’s assertion that the lotus will bloom on its own in Kashmir is an enigma. For them, a party that imposed Kashmir on Jammu is unwilling to contest in the valley as it knows it cannot make it.

On the other hand, Congress is focusing on assault on identity, unemployment, inflation, safeguarding secularism and restoration of statehood.  Pilot highlighted the tragedy of Jammu and Kashmir’s bifurcation and official attempts to snatch the land of locals and give it to outsiders.

Post Article 370

“There has not been much work on the ground. Unemployment looms large. Besides having highly qualified degrees, youth are doing menial jobs,” said Malik, a resident of Jammu and a pharmacy student, who wished to be identified by his second name. “The job market has become more competitive as outsiders are settling in Jammu.”

Even after reading down Article 370, which was projected as an obstacle to more jobs, and prosperity, the unemployed youth are imploring the government to advertise vacant posts in various departments and release final selection lists of various recruitments. Of late, the unemployment rate in Jammu and Kashmir is on a steady rise and stands at 18.3 per cent.

“The contest is not easy in Jammu. The incumbent MP has done nothing extraordinary but is backed by the PM’s reputation,” said Dilip Singh, a resident of Jammu, and a retired civil servant. Unlike, the initial wave when people voted for the BJP, its waning impact is visible. “Bhalla is better as he is accessible. And people are not happy as assembly elections are elusive.”

Raman Bhalla (Congress)

“Before 2014, the business in Jammu was blooming.  However, it has gone down due to multiple factors, especially since the extension of train service from Jammu to Katra,” said Pawan Gupta, President of the All Jammu Hotels and Lodges Association as no Shri Mata Vaishno Devi pilgrim is coming to Jammu while the same will happen in case of Shri Amarnath Ji yatra devotees in coming years when Kashmir will be connected directly with the rest of India.

Gupta suggests Jammu should be made an independent tourist destination and not a transitory stay. There were many tourist projects in the pipeline which have missed deadlines.

Residents insist they need water, livelihood and power but there has not been significant improvement. Even the Smart City project was implemented in an unprofessional manner as it gets flooded due to slight rains. There is a visible disconnect between locals and administration, owing to a lack of legislative representatives since 2018.

According to a businessman, after the reading down of Article 370 and initial jubilations, things have turned worse for trade. “We had supported BJP for development but they are snatching even the existing livelihoods of people,” the trader, who wishes to stay anonymous, said. Arun Gupta, president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, however, remained tight-lipped on the issues.

Earlier, the chamber had protested against several ‘anti-Jammu’ steps taken by the administration. Then, they talked about many issues – from the e-auction of liquor shops to the allocation of mining contracts to “outsiders” to the end of the 149-year-old practice of the Darbar move. Residents believe the new Land Grant Rules will dispossess local businessmen and entrepreneurs of leased land, which will eventually be made available to non-locals as well. The administration has scrapped laws that provided safeguards to farming communities, they allege.

War of Words

Ajay Kumar Sadhotra, NC leader and former minister said the Darbar move would bind two culturally and geographically distinct communities. It would increase the footfall of people and boost local business. However, LG argued it would save the government Rs 200 crore annually.

Ajay K Sadhotra

In August 2023, Jammu observed a shutdown and protested against multiple moves of the government, which included setting up a toll plaza at Sarore, installing smart meters and imposing property tax. This year also, the transporters have been protesting against the operation of e-buses, which they alleged are affecting their livelihood.

Sadhotra said that claims of development by the government are overhyped as many projects were already started by previous governments and no significant process has been made. “Why can’t they regularise the daily wagers of various departments?  As inflation is growing, the BJP government is making living difficult and the cost of living high by installing smart meters,” he said. “Other household expenses have gone high while earning opportunities are dwindling.”

After snatching constitutional rights, our land and jobs are in danger, Sadhotra said. The identity, land, and jobs are under threat. “Many people are buying local land and there is rarely any local employment,” he alleged. “The contractors for mining are outsiders as locals, poor people are suffering.”

Ravinder Sharma, Senior Congress leader said that people desire change and INDIA bloc alliance will win both seats. “We need to restore the dignity of the erstwhile state, unemployment, and sense of insecurity regarding land, and resources,” he said. “Post abrogation of Article 370, people are not happy. People want certain kinds of constitutional protection.”

“Outsiders are settling inside Jammu and now many can avail domicile certificates after few years,” Yogesh Sawhney, erstwhile lawmaker and Congress Vice President, said. “In Jammu, many mafias involved in liquor and land are operating. The anti-people policies of government have created resentment in youth.”

PDP youth leader, Aditya Gupta, said his party is supporting Congress. “I hope people will vote based on work. Has the local reservation been considered while vaunting about IITs and IIMs,” he said as according to there is a problem of drug abuse especially in rural areas due to unemployment.

Of the 22 candidates in the fray, Ankur Sharma from Ekam Sanatan Bharat Dal, is also among them. “There is a desire for change and want to get rid of representatives of BJP and Congress,” he said as he talked about the “discrimination” from political parties as they have mostly been Kashmir-centric on addressing issues. “We want political empowerment of Jammu and equitable distribution of resources.” Sadhotra’s NC is campaigning for Congress.

“There are no visible alliances on the Jammu seat,” journalist and analyst, Zafar Choudhary said. “The contest is direct between the BJP and the Congress. With whatever base, the NC is supporting the Congress. However, the Apni Party, which has a significant presence in Reasi and Samba districts, is conspicuous by its silence.”

The BJP

Ruling party leader Varinderjeet Singh said the BJP MPs – Kishore and Singh were able to get welfare schemes and projects in a decade and the impact is visible on the ground. He believes people are enthusiastic about retaining the incumbents. Insisting the MPs were accessible, he highlighted “significant changes” under the government, which include improvements in roads, electricity, water supply, transportation and implementation of welfare schemes for every section of the population. Bharat Bhushan, District Development Council Chairman, Jammu, said that BJP will return to power as the benefits of policies have reached ground level.

Aerial view of Jammu city

The right-wing parties, which are now seen as the Sangh Parivaar, have historically remained a very influential force in Jammu plains. In Jan Sangh days, the right wing would operate from Jammu when the movement against the special status was launched by the group. This influence was diluted by the presence of Congress on one side and JKNC’s pro-poor and landless population, a situation that has altered in the last three generations. This was reflected by the last series of elections for Lok Sabha and assembly, a status quo that the INDIA bloc intends to reverse.

Interestingly, senior advocate and activist, Sheikh Shakeel, in a short video questioned Jugal Kishore’s affidavit from 2019 that showed he has a liability of Rs 34 crores. In the recent affidavit, the BJP leader has stated that it has fallen to Rs 20 lakhs. How the lawyer asked.

West Pakistan Refugees

The constituency has 22.75 per cent Scheduled Caste (SC) votes as 9.24 per cent fall in the Scheduled Tribe category. Off late to empower communities like SCs, and ST’s, OBC’s, three Bills were passed in parliament. This has made Labha Ram Gandhi a happy man after Article 370 was binned.

Flanked by her Deputy, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti paying a compensation cheque to a West Pakistan refugee in Jammu. Pic DIPR

Chairman of the West Pakistan Refugees Action Committee and a former constable in the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, Gandhi said they have been able to get citizenship rights and are acquiring domicile certificates. There are 1.50 lakh refugees and they have decided to vote for BJP.

“We were Indian citizens but due to the special status of the erstwhile state, we were not able to vote for assembly or panchayat elections. BJP scrapped the obstacle to our citizenship,” he said. Earlier, under the rehabilitation package they got Rs 5.5 lakh per family, and around 3500 have benefited till now.

Marvi Salthia, an assistant professor at the Christ University, Bangalore has worked on West Pakistan Refugees in Akhnoor and Suchetgarh. She said most of them support the BJP because of citizenship procurement. These refugees are predominantly composed of 80 per cent SCs, 10 per cent OBC, and 10 per cent from the General Category.

Delimitation

In the last Delimitation, the segment lost most of Rajouri and Poonch, which was added to the Anantnag constituency.  The electoral cartography was termed as a gerrymandering exercise to suit the BJP by political class. However, the Reasi district has been delinked from the Udhampur seat and added to the Jammu constituency.

Zafar Chowdhary said the Jammu constituency has been significantly affected by delimitation as Rajouri and Poonch districts, its traditional parts since 1967 have been removed and attached to the Anantnag-Rajouri seat. “Similarly, the whole of Reasi district has been removed from Udhampur constituency and allocated to Jammu. Post Delimitation, Jammu emerged as the constituency with the highest number of Scheduled Caste votes -23 per cent,” he said.

The segment retained from the Rajouri district only Kalakote-Sunderbani.

Evolution of the constituency

Congress has represented the constituency for most of the time. It was Inderjeet Malhotra representing it in the 1962, 1967 and 1971 elections. Thakur Baldev Singh won the 1977 election as an Independent candidate. Girdhari Lal Dogra of the Congress won the 1980 elections, while Janak Raj Gupta, also of the Congress, won the 1984 and 1989 elections.  Mangat Ram Sharma of the Congress won the 1996 elections.

BJP made a formal entry only in 1998 when Vaid Vishnu Dutt Sharma won the seat. He won again in 1999 and retained it till his death. The only Muslim candidate who won from Jammu was the National Conference’s Chowdhary Talib Hussian. In 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections were won by Madan Lal Sharma of the Congress.

In 2014, Jugal Kishore of Bhartiya Janta Party won the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections consecutively. If he wins, it will be his third tenure.

2019 Data

As there are 66, 378 new voters, 10, 499 Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) and 28 trans-genders, there are 1.76 lakh senior citizen voters.

In 2019, Kishore secured a significant victory over Congress Raman Bhalla, winning by a margin of 3 lakh votes as he polled 8.58 lakh votes. Kishore got 57 per cent voter share against 37 per cent of Bhalla.

Chief Election Officer’s electoral data suggests that Gulabgarh has 94,257 voters; Reasi 85,212; Shri Mata Vaishno Devi 55,721; Ramgarh 88, 507; Samba 90,698; Vijaypur 79,877; Bishnah 118,782;  Suchetgarh 113,434; R.S. Pura-Jammu South 125,430;  Bahu 121,184; Jammu East 106837; Nagrota  95,551; Jammu West 105,585; Jammu North 109, 392; Marh 93, 326; Akhnoor 94, 893; Chhamb 105,086; Kalakote-Sunderbani 96,976.

Conclusion

As is refrain that post reading down of Article 370, Jammu is not happy, will it reflect in the ballot box and will anti-incumbency wane Modi magic? In the last elections, Jammu recorded a voter turnout of 72.49 per cent what results and surprise ballot boxes are in offing this time? Will the BJP manage a hat trick?

“Jammu district and its peripheral areas such as Samba was the epicentre of support against Article 370. However, that euphoria was to mellow down over the time. BJP has rendered any pro 370 narrative nearly blasphemous but there is still a strong feeling that reading down of special status has not done any major good to Jammu,” said Zafar Chowdhary. “I can see the Congress has been incapable of shaping campaign around this sentiment in Jammu, unlike Lal Singh.”  It is the BJP enjoying an edge over Congress. This reflects the traditional Jammu sentiment.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here