Of the dozen-odd candidates in the fray for the Udhampur LS seat, the contest is between Congress and BJP, represented by Rajputs, Lal Singh and Jitendra Singh. However, for a hilly constituency where the last delimitation skirted Muslim influence, Ghulam Nabi Azad’s candidate can alter the outcome, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

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In Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency, the contest is between Congress’s Lal Singh and BJP’s Dr Jitendra Singh but GHulam Nabi Azad’s candidate, GM Saroori can alter the outcome.

On April 19, Friday, the 44-day Lok Sabha elections process in the world’s largest democracy will start. In the first of the five phases, Udhampur, one of Jammu and Kashmir’s five Lok Sabha berths will go to polls.

From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath campaigned vociferously for their incumbent candidate Dr Jitendra Singh while the Congress held a mega rally on April 13, addressed by Raj Babbar. There are 12 candidates in fray but the real contest is between two national parties, the BJP and the Congress. The third significant candidate is the Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) Ghulam Mohammad Saroori. The constituency has 16.23 lakh voters.

But the battle of conquering Udhampur appears to be an uphill task for all.

After the reading down of Article 370 and tectonic shifts in the political landscape of the erstwhile state, the refrain is that the victory for the incumbent BJP candidate, a Rajput, Dr Jitendra Singh who seeks to retain office for the third time, is not a cake walk.  He has been with the PMO and won the previous two Lok Sabha elections, the last one with a landslide margin.

The contest has been made interesting with the entry of INDIA bloc backed Congress candidate, and another Rajput, Choudhary Lal Singh who has been in controversy earlier and off late for all paradoxical reasons and is on a bail for money laundering case registered by the Enforcement Directorate. He re-joined the grand old party after a decade.  However, the black-and-white fight between the two arch-rival national political parties may be tilted by overt and covert allies in the fray.

Similarly, the weight of the vote share will also go into the bucket of the newly formed party, (DPAP) candidate, Saroori who may influence the outcome between the two key contestants. Known as the right hand of Azad, Saroori like Azad ended his long-term association with Congress in 2022.

Choudhary Lal Singh in Jammu after returning to Congress on March 21, 2024.

The Issues

BJP is seeking votes for undoing Article 370 and hopes for a highly developed Jammu and Kashmir. Prime Minister Modi talked about the early restoration of statehood and assembly elections while insisting the dynasts will be fought. Congress is talking about statehood, rights over the land, property and jobs, besides Article 371 type protection as is in vogue in other hill states. Azad’s party is also for ‘dignified’ statehood.

Technically all the contestants are almost on the same page: statehood, assembly polls. By and large, the election is being fought against the persona of Modi. Congress is talking about lot many local issues including the peoples’ rights and fake narratives being generated in the name of jobs and development.

Evolution of the Constituency

Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency was formed in the 1960s when Brigadier Ghansara Singh was elected its first representative. However, he was made to resign in barely 31 days. His successor, Dr Karan Singh, went on to win the next three elections in 1971, 1977 and 1980 on a Congress ticket.

In 1984, Congress fielded Girdhari Lal Dogra. After his death, the constituency witnessed a by-election in 1988 in which Mohammad A Khan won. In 1989, Congress retained it with Dharam Paul.

After, 1990, the BJP started gaining a foothold. BJP’s Chaman Lal Gupta won this constituency in the 1996, 1998, and 1999 elections.

Doda town, an aerial view

The seat was wrested by Choudhary Lal Singh for Congress in 2004 and 2009.  In 2014, however, Ghulam Nabi Azad, now patron of DPAP contested on a Congress ticket but lost to Dr Jitendra Sing. By then, Lal Singh joined BJP where he served as minister in the BJPDP coalition government only to resign in 2018 over the Kathua rape-cum-murder case controversy. He contested the 2019 Parliament polls on a DSSP ticket but lost. Now, Lal Singh is back to Congress and is trying to wrest the seat from Jitendra Singh who won it in 2019, for the second time.

In the 2019 elections, Dr Jitendra Singh polled 724311 votes and defeated Congress’s Vikramaditya Singh who got only 367059 votes.  The BJP secured 61 per cent of the votes against 31 per cent of the INC. The third slot went to by now rudderless, Jammu and Kashmir’s National Panther’s Party, which is now battling bickering after its founder Bhim Singh’s death. Lal Singh ended up in a fourth spot with around 19,000 votes and a two per cent share.

Delimitation

After the reading of Article 370, Justice Ranjana Prasad Desai led the Delimitation Commission and proposed Udhampur Lok Sabha seat comprise 18 assembly segments with a total population of 20.95 lakhs while excluding Reasi and adding it to the Jammu constituency.  Political class termed the electoral cartography as a gerrymandering exercise to suit the BJP.

The Udhampur constituency has an overall Schedule Caste (SC) population of 17.25 per cent and a Schedule Tribe (ST) of 10.82 per cent.

The redrawn Udhampur is spread over five districts, as against six in the past; Udhampur, Kathua and three districts of Chenab Valley—Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban. The assembly segments of Inderwal, Kishtwar and Padder-Nagseni (Kishtwar district); Bhadarwah, Doda and Doda West (Doda); Ramban, Banihal, Udhampur West, Udhampur East, Chenani and Ramnagar (Udhampur); Bani, Billawar, Basohli, Jasrota, Kathua and Hiranagar (district) fall in it. Of the seven assembly segments reserved for SC by the Commission Ramnagar and Kathua are in Udhampur.

After the Muslim majority Reasi was delinked from this constituency, the Muslim stake-holding was reduced. The berth has a population base of 2095765 (2011 census) of which 678360 (32.36 per cent) are Muslims and 1391685 (66.4 per cent) are Hindus.  “Reasi district containing three Assembly segments has been removed from Udhampur and allocated to Jammu,” political analyst Zafar Chowdhary said. “This slightly reduces the influence of Muslim voters.”

2019  Data

In the 2019 elections, Congress polled 53.94 per cent votes against 43.59 per cent of BJP in Doda. In Kishtwar, the Congress candidate had a thin lead margin. However, in Ramban, Udhampur, Kathua and Reasi the Congress trailed behind BJP, with the latter securing 56.79 per cent votes in Ramban, 78.33 per cent in Udhampur, 76.58 per cent in Kathua and 74.76 per cent in Reasi.

This time, there are around 84,468 potential first-time voters. The young voters, aged 18-19 years, stand at 45,825 male voters, 38,641 female voters and two trans-genders. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has set up 2637 polling stations across the constituency, of which 2,457 are situated in rural areas and 180 in urban areas. Of notable mention is the inclusion of 23,637 Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

Chief Election Officer’s electoral data suggests Inderwal has 62,572 voters; Kishtwar 73, 558; Padder-Nagseni 397, 67;  Bhadarwah,122,765; Doda 966, 54; Doda West 856, 74; Ramban, 965,28; Banihal, 122,596; Udhampur West, 114,914;  Udhampur East, 100,027;  Chenani 108, 246;  Ramnagar 96666; Bani, 57, 138; Billawar, 943, 04; Basohli 68,889;  Jasrota 863,93; Kathua 108911  and Hiranagar 875,92.

Little Stake Holders

Azad’s Saroori is expected to play a major role in who wins and loses. The constituencies falling under the Ghulam Nabi Azad’s possible influence include Inderwal, Kishtwar, Padder-Nagseni (Kishtwar); Bhadarwah, Doda and Doda West (Doda); Ramban, Banihal (Ramban). A significant part of the eight lakh voters in this belt are Muslims.

However, in Udhampur West, Udhampur East, Chenani and Ramnagar the footholds of BJP are supposed to be strong. Besides, Harsh Dev Singh, Pawan Gupta and Balwant Singh Mankotia can exercise influence and other players.

Similarly, there will be a direct contest between BJP and Congress in Bani, Billawar Basohli, Jasrota, Kathua and Hiranagar.

Black and White Contest

With the entry of Saroori and Lal Singh and anti-incumbency factors at play especially after the reading down of Article 370, the fight in this constituency could thwart the hat-trick of BJP candidate.  However, Saroori can salvage BJP as his vote share may reduce Lal Singh’s margins. But INDIA bloc candidate, Lal Singh will also get the support of NC and other allies.No major regional parties, like the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), have fielded any candidates for Udhampur. They are part of the INDIA alliance.

Gareeb Kalyan Sammelan”, the event was organised at the Bihishte Zahra Park in Budgam on May 31, 2022

Zaffar Chowdhary, contrary to the established electoral traditions, said the BJP is projecting this as a pro-incumbency election. “It is with this view that they have repeated Jitendra Singh for this third time. However, on the ground, the challenges of anti-incumbency are quite evident. As initial trends are a little disappointing for Jitendra, his hopes are in Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, the two-star campaigners,” he said.

Currently, the constituency is abuzz with political rallies and fervent debates. Yogi and Modi’s speeches were heard by good gatherings. They both had reading down of Article 370 as the main talking point. Besides, Modi talked about the early restoration of statehood and assembly elections within the time frame set by the Supreme Court. Quickly, people are framing up their opinions.

“There is no new work only old projects are rebottled, repackaged and renamed,”| one voter said. “No works which benefit common people on the ground have been done.”

Guftar Ahmad Choudhary, a Gujjar activist, said that the tribal communities were feeling betrayed. “We cannot vote for BJP but we have no choice but to vote for Congress and not Lal Singh,” Guftar said. “Our community has no voice in that area and is still backward compared to other areas. The incumbent MP failed to deliver.”

The BJP

Development, inclusivity and abrogation of Article 370 in Modi 2.2 is BJP’s main campaigning discourse. “Udhampur is the only parliamentary seat to now have three centrally sponsored medical colleges, all having come up under Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” Dr Jitendra said. He talks about setting up of North India’s first biotech park, the construction of the Atal Setu on the Ravi river connecting Kathua’s Basohli with Punjab as well as other bridges and the widening of the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. “Train, tunnel, security in border areas, the peace and prosperity brought by the abrogation of Article 370,” have come under the rule of BJP, one BJP worker based in Kashmir said.

G M Saroori

BJP spokesperson and Media Management in charge of Jammu and Kashmir, Rajni Sethi, said that since Jitendra Singh was in the PMO for the last 10 years, he was able to get schemes and projects approved on priority. “Lal Singh was expelled from the party for his anti-party activities as party principles matter,” Rajni said. “Now he is back into the corrupt Congress lap as he has been changing and founding parties.” According to her, the power-hungry Congress and NC are supporting the same Lal Singh they had rallied against in 2018.

One of the incumbency factors and the major campaign cry against Dr Singh is that he was inaccessible as an MP. “The reality is that he was in PMO and had a very busy schedule.  But he has done his work as every minister’s progress report reaches to PM. If he had not worked, the PM would not have rallied for him,” she said as the people’s mandate is the final verdict. In Doda, however, some people who rallied against Singh were arrested by police.

Lal Singh’s Ghar Wapsi

As Lal Singh Ghar Wapsi to Congress after more than a decade is posing tough competition to the BJP despite him being hounded by ED. He had to resign in 2018 following his participation in a rally held in support of the sensational gang rape and murder case. Three months after the kidnapping, gang-raping and brutal murder of an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl in Kathua in January 2018, then-Congress President Rahul Gandhi accompanied by his sister Priyanka Vadra led a candle march to India Gate as the brutality rattled the conscience of the nation.

After Saroori’s possible vote-cutting, the 2018 baggage is the second factor that could play against Lal Singh. The Congress is already facing music for this. Salman Nizami, DPAP chief spokesperson, said the Congress is exposed for using supporters of rapists as candidates.

However, Zaffar Chowdhary believes Congress could not have got a better candidate. Besides floating his party, the former Congress MP, Lal Singh had changed floors from Congress to BJP to Congress. He is getting support from outside the party as well. Three former MLAs, Harsh Dev Singh of Panthers Party, Manohar Lal Sharma of DPAP and Durga Dass of BJP have joined his campaign and may throw their weight behind him.

The Lal Singh impact may be blunted by the Saroori factor but according to political analysts, the DPAP candidate doesn’t have a winning potential. “Their influence is only on two to three constituencies of Chenab Valley. DPAP may poll a chunk of the vote in Chenab Valley which otherwise would have gone to the Congress,” Chowdhary said. However, the battle is made interesting by INDIA bloc member, NC who according to another analyst may transfer their vote share to their alliance partner Congress, especially in Doda, Ramban and Kishtwar.

Anti-Incumbency

There is attrition within the BJP party itself. As the MP has remained inaccessible his rallies are not garnering much support. Off late, a video went viral wherein a BJP worker went on stage in a BJP campaign. “What do we expect from MPs who create assets from funds meant to us? We are ready to vote but what do they do to our funds? On the ground, the MP has failed to deliver but it is because of PM Modi that people support the candidate,” the speaker said. The MP did not visit the area is frequented by landslides and other natural disaster-related tragedies as he was heckled by a few supporters and stopped. The gathering soon was disrupted as people started leaving.

“Strongly condemn the shameful act of BJP leaders who violently assaulted a local speaker on the stage who dared to speak against BJP candidate’s non -performance as MP in a public rally at Sangaldan, Gool today. This assault on free speech is disgraceful and unacceptable,” NC leader from Banihal wrote on X.

After the reading of the Article, there is growing insecurity over land and jobs despite initial jubilations over its binning. Similarly, there is growing alienation in the plains of Kathua and Udhampur over the BJP’s moves like scrapping the Roshni Act and refugee rights which impacted a majority of farmers and refugees in the belt. Also as the revenue laws were changed, the department has revoked the rights of local communities to cultivate state land, community land, and evacuee land.  While uprooting communities from lands, the administration is handing over lands to Jammu and Kashmir State Industrial Development Corporation (SIDCO).

Lal Singh in his speeches, invokes reading down of Article 370 and accuses the Modi government of taking away Jammu and Kashmir’s “identity” and exploiting its people. He also raps the knuckle of the incumbent MP for being inaccessible and bringing misery to people with new laws. The rate of unemployment is on the rise, and the drug mafia is flourishing in the region he lambasted his opponent in campaign speeches.

An aerial view of Kishtwar

Vikar Rasool Wani, President of Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee and former MLA from Banihal Constituency said that Dr Singh was not a known figure in public when he contested his first election and won.

“It was because of promises that Modi had made he also won. But when he was MP, he was inaccessible throughout his tenure. During elections, they come with the photo of Modi and in 2019 you secured votes in the name of Pulwama,” he said.

Lal Singh, in contrast, reaches people, is on the ground and is accessible. He said delimitation will not impact as everyone is against the incumbent MP. “People are fed up as lands have been snatched, property tax has been imposed, smart metres have been installed, the business has been badly impacted and traditional darbar move has been ended,” he said.

Vikar sees DPAP as BJP’s B team. However, when asked about Congresses choosing Lal Singh, he said he is not a rapist. “He has demanded on behalf of his people to have a CBI enquiry of the matter. Is that wrong? But we had objections with CBI as it was transparent when Congress ruled the country,” he said. Nizami, however, said Congress is open to “communal” people. “It is they (NC, Congress) who had rallied against Lal Singh for supporting rapists and pressurized the then coalition of BJP-PDP government to expel him while Abdullah gave clean chit to Asiya-Nelofar rapists,” he said.

Nizami said people dubbing his party as a B-team must explain how NC has been in constant touch with the BJP even after the removal of Article 370. Saroori sees, Lal Singh as a tainted man. “His role in Rassana’s case and ED hounding him is apparent. The incumbent MP was inaccessible to common people,” he said.

NC’s Ajay Sadotra said there is an anti-incumbency wave as the BJP has been disconnected from the masses. People, according to him, are angry with the BJP as they are aware that they have delivered nothing beyond hollow sloganeering. “They have made lives of people miserable by reducing even the quantity of necessities like food, kerosene, etc. besides increasing unemployment,” he said.

Contrary to initial reaction, the reading down of Article 370 has also adversely impacted people as their lands are sold to outsiders and jobs are given to outsiders Sadotra said.

DDC’s

The last electoral exercise was that of District Development Council elections in which BJP held the sway in the Udhampur constituency. In Kathua, BJP bagged 13 seats, Udhampur 11 seats, and eight seats in Doda.  The erstwhile PAGD emerged as the largest party in Ramban and Kishtwar in Chenab valley. The congress which had distanced from the PAGD alliance, won 26 seats, independents 50 and AAP 12. Among the PAGD constituents, the NC won the highest number of 67 seats.

Contrary to official claims that DDC will bring development, the entire extra-constitutional set-up remained a slave to bureaucracy. Santoshi Devi, BJP’s DDC member in Kastigarh (Doda) who has a good influence in the area resigned as she claims she is being discriminated against within the party.

Another DDC council member from the Marmat area of Doda district, Mushtaq Ahmed, resigned and was welcomed by Lal Singh. He had won the seat on the Congress ticket but had joined the DPAP after it was formed. Now he is back.

What remains to be seen is will anti-incumbency factors play a role or if Modi’s magic manages the game. Also, as alliances and allies from DDC’s to regional parties are shifting, will it reflect the hustings? And which way buckets of votes will fall? In a constituency where the voter turnout is 70 per cent will there be a surprise in the offing as there are 84,468 new voters?

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