The Final Franchise

   

With total 213 candidates in the fray for the fifth and the final phase of polling in 20 Assembly seats of Jammu and Kashmir on December 20, Jammu region is likely to witness the contest between BJP and other parties. Bilal Handoo reports the battle for the final franchise

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Amit Shah with Jitendra Singh during poll campaigning in Jammu.
Amit Shah with Jitendra Singh during poll campaigning in Jammu.

As the political amphitheatre shifted to uneven ridges of Jammu province at the foothills of Shivalik for the fifth and final phase of polling in state, the Panthers party supremo Bhim Singh appealed the people of Jammu to vote only for the parties whose leaders say “Jai Hind”!

The traditional trio — National Conference, Congress and Peoples Democratic Party — wooed voters on BJP bashing and mud-slinging on each other. But in Jammu (approx 600 kilometres from New Delhi) the saffron party propelling high on Modi wave played development card: Sabka Vikas, Sabke Saath! Amid this political clamour, Jammu is likely to witness the contest between BJP and other parties slated on December 20.

Unlike Kashmir, where regional and Indian national parties were directly pitted against each other, the equation is different in state’s winter capital where BJP made great inroads after sweeping both parliamentary seats of the province. (Jitendra Singh defeated Congress’s ‘crisis manager’ Ghulam Nabi Azad from Doda-Udhampur seat; while as, J&K BJP president Jugal Kishore defeated the two-time Congress MP from Jammu-Poonch by heavy margin in 2014 parliamentary polls).

Still fresh from summer victory, BJP looks upbeat about December 20 polls—the day 20 assembly segments spread over three districts: Jammu, Rajouri and Kathua—will witness final polling. BJP presently held 11 out of 20 seats, Congress five, NC two and one each by PDP and Independent.

BJP reportedly relies heavily on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindutva ideology to gather votes. The same Hindutva agenda figured in the BJP’s manifesto for 2014 parliamentary polls and Narendra Modi (as a lifelong member or pracharak of the RSS is “committed” to it). The main items of the Hindutva agenda are enforcement of a uniform civil code, abrogation of Article 370 and construction of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh (which volunteers recruited and trained by the RSS had pulled down in 1992). Interestingly, neither Modi nor his lieutenant Amit Shah (BJP president) has spoken a word against the RSS—thus: fuelling speculations, “RSS is, indeed, in command of both the party and the government.”

Tara-Chand,--Sham-Lal-Sharma,-Devandra-Rana,-Raman-BhallaHowever, Modi steered BJP to victory without relying on it overtly. Instead, he focused on development and attracted many young people with his promise of achche din (good days). As BJP’s star campaigner, Modi visited poll-bound Jammu and Kashmir five times and addressed nine rallies to boost BJP’s poll prospects. But Modi wasn’t alone frequenting the state (especially Jammu), BJP’s rank and file equally pushed with full might in Jammu province for the last phase of the polling.

The party’s union ministers and its star campaigners were being assigned the task of leading the campaigning in each of the 20 constituencies. Besides, more than 1000 workers, volunteers, Swayam Sevaks and leaders of the party from other states arrived in Jammu and fanned out in each constituency.

Munish Sharma, BJP state secretary, said the workers and volunteers from other states worked at the booth level. Though Sharma remained tight-lipped about their strategies, but the reliable party sources informed that the bunch of workers and volunteers devised party’s strategy in respect of door-to-door campaigning, holding nukkad meetings, rallies of star campaigners, besides mobilizing voters. “These are the same people,” the party sources said, “who worked in the state during the recently concluded parliamentary elections”.

The advent of BJP government in mid-2014 intensified the situation through its multi-pronged approach to J&K: ‘Mission 44+’, revocation of Article 370 and development. Now, the party has high hopes from the 20 seats for the final phase of polling. And to ensure maximum seats, BJP’s key strategists of different organizational wings (who had been working in different areas of Kashmir, Doda and Ladakh region) arrived and camped in Jammu before December 20 and started working. To take charge of the affairs, the party’s national president, Amit Shah also arrived in Jammu on December 18 to boost morale of the workers.

Earlier, talking about his government’s vision for J&K, Modi during his Samba rally, said: “BJP ruled states have ensured sources of livelihood for the people. What is the requirement of youth of the state? They need jobs, source of livelihood which all the parties that ruled in the state in past could not ensure.” You have seen governments of father-son and father-daughter, he said, “which did no good to you.”

In this election environment swept by Modi wave, five sitting ministers, many former ministers, sitting and ex-legislators and prominent faces of various political parties are in the fray. NC and Congress fielded all their sitting ministers, lawmakers and almost all losers of 2008. BJP dropped its seven sitting MLAs and brought in various new faces on 20 seats. The PDP too fielded new faces in some of the seats.

For 20 seats, the total contesting candidates are: 11 in Bani, 12 in Basohli, 15 in Kathua, 8 in Billawar, 8 in Hiranagar, 11 in Nagrota, 11 in Gandhinagar, 9 in Jammu East, 15 in Jammu West, 10 in Bishnah, 11 in RS Pura, 12 in Suchetgarh, 9 in Marh, 11 in Raipur Domana, 8 in Akhnoor, 10 in Chhamb, 11 in Nowshera, 12 in Darhal, 13 in Rajouri and 7 in Kalakote.

The three-time Congress MLA from Chhamb seat and deputy chief minister of the state Tara Chand is facing a stiff competition to retain the seat from BJP candidate Krishen Lal (considered as an honest and grass-root level leader apart from backed by Modi wave). Chamb seat falls on the India-Pakistan international border which was hit by the floods in September. It also witnessed firing and mortar shelling reportedly from Pakistan in August and October this year. (Keeping in view the “brunt of cross-border shelling and firing”, around 437 polling stations in the Jammu province were declared “sensitive” and “hyper-sensitive” for December 20 polling.)

Chand is facing ire of over 30 villages situated along the Indo-Pak international border and banks of the Chenab in Pargwal sector of Chammb populated with nearly 40,000 people. Cross border firing, flood rehabilitation, local development and employment are some glaring issues there. However, Chand is invincible from Chhamb since 1996. He defeated his close rival BJP’s Chaman Lal by 2395 votes in 2008.

But six years after, Chand is battling a strong anti-incumbency along with Modi wave. Apart from this, BSP, NC and PDP threatened to play spoilsport for the Congress’s scheduled caste face in Jammu and Kashmir. In the face of these factors, it is believed, Chand’s fourth consecutive term to assembly stands shut.

Besides Chand, there is another Congress leader and PHE Minister Sham Lal Sharma in race from Akhnoor for the third time. Sharma is trying to tide over the BJP wave by raising the issue of Hindu chief minister. He is involved in one-to-one fight with a fresh BJP candidate, Rajeev Sharma —though, NC’s Dr Gafoor Bhat is also a prominent contender apart from PDP and BSP nominees. In 2008, Sharma defeated his close rival BJP’s Govind Ram Sharma by 13,884 votes.

A two-time winner from Gandhinagar on Congress ticket, Raman Bhalla is involved in quadrangular contest with BJP’s Kavinder Gupta, PDP’s Amreek Singh Reen and NC’s Surinder Singh Bunty among others. In last polls, Bhalla defeated his close rival BJP’s Nirmal Singh in 2008 by 2263 votes. But in 2014, Bhalla, too, is battling strong Modi wave.

Another prominent seat Nagrota has been witnessing multi-cornered contest among NC’s Devender Singh Rana, BJP’s first timer Nand Kishore Sharma and others. Rana is sitting member of the legislative council while Nand Kishore is brother of Jugal Kishore, who had won Nagrota seat for two consecutive terms in 2002 and 2008 before being elected to Lok Sabha in May 2014. In 2008 elections, Kishore defeated his closest rival NC’s (now BJP’s) Ajatshatru Singh by 1620 votes.

Rana is promising a “new” development in Nagrota by “pooling” all resources to ensure good roads, dependable water and power supply. To support Rana’s Nagrota plan, independent candidate Molvi Shah Mohammed withdrew his candidature from the seat. But to his woes, Rana is in the line of BJP’s ‘aggressive and strategic’ poll campaigning which is likely to make Nagrota a tough battle to win for him.

Jammu East is facing triangular contest among all the three first timers: BJP’s Rajesh Gupta, Congress’s Vikram Malhotra and PDP’s Bharat Choudhary. The seat is presently held by BJP’s Ashok Khajuria, who was denied mandate by the party. NC’s two times nominated MLA Bimla Luthra is also in the fray from Jammu East. Similarly, Jammu West is too witnessing triangular fight among BJP’s fresh face Sat Sharma (BJP denied mandate to sitting MLA from West Prof Chaman Lal Gupta), Congress’s Surinder Shingari and NC’s Dharamvir Singh Jamwal.

BJP’s decision to field fresh faces might backlash—as some party rebels with sizeable vote-bank are fighting election on their own. The political grapevine is: the move might fragment BJP’s votes. Besides, NC, Congress and PDP cautioned voters—“The bubble of BJP’s Mission 44+ has burst after the party’s dismal show in Kashmir. So, better is to be the part of ruling party than BJP which is likely to stay in opposition.”

Amid this, Omar in Jammu appealed to the people of Jammu to “exhibit wisdom” and support the “local party” for development. Congress criticised both NC and PDP as being “unreliable” and of “doublespeak”. PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti wanted to bring Jammu on heritage tourism map. BJP endlessly chanted: Vikas. But will Modi wave end up sweeping Jammu? Well, the result is round the corner.

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