Fight for Panjal

With BJP wave fizzling out in first four phases of the five phased state assembly elections, all eyes are set on Hindu majority Jammu belt. Safwat Zargar talks to people in Rajouri to see how despite consolidation of Hindu votes it is still an open contest  

A scene of Jamia Masjid in Rajouri district.
A scene of Jamia Masjid in Rajouri district.

While the wave of BJP’s saffron swept away Jammu in 30 out of 37 assembly seats in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there were some constituencies which offered resistance and remained loyal to Congress. In Rajouri district’s four assembly constituencies –Rajouri, Darhal, Kalakote and Nowshera – the first two went to Congress while as Kalakote and Nowshera fell in BJP’s basket. PDP surfaced as first-runner up in three constituencies.

“Like National Conference in valley, Congress is feeling heat in Jammu, paving way for BJP and PDP to attract votes. However, BJP factor and Hindu vote consolidation is likely to give an upper hand to the lotus,” says a senior journalist based in Jammu.

All the four constituencies have remained loyal to either NC or Congress except Darhal, won by PDP’s Zulfikar Ali in 2008. This election, though not undermining the BJP’s impact on electoral trends in region, it seems the Modi-led party has to push a “bit more” to score its maiden assembly victory in the district. What will be the results of these constituencies in December 23 polls, will not put only BJP on tenterhooks but all – PDP, NC and Congress.

“At present, electorate in Jammu is divided between BJP on one side and PDP/NC and Congress on other side,” says Sartaj Bedar, a resident from the area. “Number of independent candidates contesting this election is high and they are likely to divide a major chunk of Muslim vote in order to provide Hindu vote to consolidate towards BJP and there is no boycott factor also.”

With 18 candidates in the contest including former health minister and “tainted” congress leader Shabir Ahmad Khan, the Muslim dominated Rajouri seat is likely to witness a bilateral contest between PDP and BJP. The rightwing Hindu party has also given mandate to a Muslim and former Congress MLA Chowdhary Talib Hussain. However, BJP’s recent “conversion” controversies in Agra and other “communally sensitive” statements have put the electorate in introspection about voting BJP to power, believes Shahid Ahmad, a resident from Rajouri.

“Talib Hussain is an influential person and BJP has fielded him to secure votes on two counts; Muslim vote and Hindu minority vote. Modi’s visit to the area was to cobble up Hindu vote in favour of Hussain,” Ahmad says. “Among regional parties PDP has more chances than NC while as Congress has suffered an image dent. PDP’s candidate Qamar Hussain is also a Chowdhary and enjoys wide support among Gujjar circles.”

As far as ground mood in Hindu dominated Nowshera assembly seat is ascertained, the seat looks a “cakewalk” for BJP in the district. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP’s Jugal Kishore secured around 43000 votes out of total 67000 votes polled approximately. Congress and PDP ranked second and third respectively. For 2014 assembly polls, BJP’s Ravinder Kumar is likely to be head-to-head with NC’s sitting MLA Radhay Sham Sharma. While PDP and Congress have also fielded Hindu candidates, BJP’s Hindu vote consolidation and anti-incumbency wave towards both NC and Congress, is likely to benefit BJP.

On December 20 when the final phase of J&K state assembly polls will begin in Darhal, sitting MLA from PDP Chowdhary Zulfikar Ali will be in a triangular contest with BJP and Congress. According to a senior scribe from the region, PDP has chances of getting through again in 2014 if Pahari vote is cast in favour of it. “Loyalties and ethnic affinities play a crucial role in polling because the constituency is predominantly Muslim dominated,” he says.

Interestingly, out of total 12 candidates in the fray, 11 are Muslims while as BJP has fielded a Hindu candidate Thakur Puran Singh. While Darhal has shuttled between NC and Congress in past elections, 2002 assembly elections had thrown a surprise when Thakur Puran Singh, then an independent candidate, won the seat by a margin of 217 votes against NC’s Choudhary Liaqat Ali. In 2008 elections, Singh fought on Congress ticket and ranked fourth in the overall tally.  Many in the area believe the high number of Muslim candidates is aimed at dividing the Muslim vote and pave way for Singh to sail to victory.

Another facet of the Muslim candidates fighting the elections is that three among 12 candidates are Choudharys’. While as Choudhary Zulfikar Ali of PDP would be hoping to score his second win from this Jammu region, two other Choudharys’-Choudhary Liaqat Ali of NC and Choudhary Naseem Liaqat contesting as an independent – might axe his share of his votes to some extent.

Carved out in pursuance of Section 4 of Jammu and Kashmir Representation of People Act 1957 on April 27 in 1995, Kalakote assembly segment has been synonymous with only two politicians since its birth – Rachpal Singh of NC and Ashok Kumar Sharma, an independent candidate. Sharma, this election, is fighting on Congress’s ticket and NC’s Singh is hoping to score a hat-trick. Observers believe “struggling” Congress has found a “strong” candidate by getting Sharma, however, defeating Singh from Kalakote is “not an easy job”, they add.

In the fifth and last phase, 86056 voters will decide the fate of nine candidates in the fray. But Kalakote is likely to resist BJP’s wave, says Rakesh Sharma, a university student from Jammu. BJP is sailing on two boats in this assembly seat by fielding a Muslim candidate Abdul Ghani Kohli. “BJP’s strategy actually stems from the demographic profile of Kalakote where Hindu and Muslim population ratio is almost equal. By fielding a Muslim candidate; it actually aims to attract votes from Muslim as well as Hindu belt,” Sharma says.

BJP’s optimism has roots in the voter trends in Lok Sabha polls of 2014. It had secured the seat with more than 20,000 votes polled in its favour, outnumbering Congress with more than 8000 votes.

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