Winning Grounds!

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BJP’s boasts a three lakh strong cadre in Kashmir and now it is keen to translate its ‘popularity’ into an electoral victory, reports Shams Irfan

A file photo of BJP members celebrating party win at centre. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

In posh uptown Jawahar Nagar locality in Srinagar, BJP’s Kashmir party headquarters in J1 Bungalow is a busy place since August 5 last year.

Every morning people from far-off places like Kupwara in the north and Qazigund in the south, the line outside the government allotted bungalow’s heavily guarded door.

They are here to get their grievances redressed. They come on their own, in groups, with bundles of applications marked and forwarded over the years by politicians and officers, but never redressed.

Above all, they come with a hope that being the ruling party in New Delhi, BJP can make things happen.

In ones and two they enter the small room on the first floor where BJP’s media cell is located. Sitting behind a desk, Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 27, BJP’s media in-charge, listens keenly to every grievance. Behind him, the wood-panelled wall is decorated with portraits of PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

“On an average, we issue around 30 Demi Official (DO) letters addressed to different officials in the government for a redress of grievances,” said Bhat.

The nature of grievances is simple: help to get damaged roads repaired in villages, issue of electricity poles, water woes, repairing a damaged electricity transformer, recommendation for arranging a bed in a government hospital, fee concession in college or university, transfer of employees etc.

After getting a patient hearing by Bhat or other BJP leaders, the applicants are issued a DO letter addressed to the concerned officials. “In most of the cases officials respond and the grievance is addressed on time,” said Bhat. “But given the complex nature of Kashmir’s bureaucracy, which still has PDP and NC loyalists, people are deliberately made to suffer.”

This Bhat feels is done deliberately to “discredit BJP” by officers close to regional parties. BJP sees them as the last hurdle in their endeavour to “bring prosperity in Kashmir valley”.

Despite the bureaucratic hurdles that BJP wants to overcome in due course of time, the footfall of people with grievances is steady at J1.

“We have been struggling to get a few electric poles sanctioned for our area since long. Then someone suggested us to visit BJP’s office,” said Ahmad, a resident of Kupwara.

Ahmad is given a DO letter addressed to the concerned officer. He is not a member of BJP.

“Our aim to work for people irrespective of their ideology or political affiliation,” said Bhat.

Ahmad is sure that once he goes back to the officer with the DO letter, issued on a BJP’s official letterhead, his matter will be resolved quickly.

Next in line waiting with half-a-dozen applications in hand is Riyaz, a BJP worker from Budgam.

He is part of a small but effective network of ground-level workers cultivated over the years.

The Network

Apart from receiving individuals and small delegations from different corners of Kashmir valley, BJP has its workers spread in small villages and towns who work as go-betweens in their areas. These workers first take these issues to BJP’s district-level offices, spread across Kashmir valley now. If the problem is not addressed at that level, it is then sent to the party’s Srinagar office.

Manzoor Ahmad Bhat

“These workers visit us on behalf of people who cannot travel to Srinagar on their own. We try to redress their grievances as quickly as we could,” said Bhat.

BJP believes that this grass-root mechanism will help them connect with the masses and earn the saffron party people’s trust and respect in the long run.

“All these years people have been duped by their representatives. We are trying to correct that and make them feel important,” said Bhat.

However, given the anger against BJP in the Muslim dominated valley, local party cadre knows they have a difficult task in hand. “It is difficult, not impossible now,” feels Bhat. “See the level of engagement in south Kashmir and you will know what I mean.”

South Slides

In 2019, Lok Sabah elections, BJP campaigned aggressively in Anantnag constituency, trying to attract voters, especially from the marginalized sections of the society. It worked.

Despite low polling in the constituency, Khanabal’s Boat Colony came out to vote in good numbers for the BJP.

The reason for such generosity was BJP local counsellor’s ability to resolve a long-pending relocation issue involving Boat Colony residents.

But the real engagement with such communities started in the aftermath of September 2014 floods.

The job to overlook the distribution of relief and rehabilitation for the flood-affected was entrusted Veer Saraf, an RSS affiliate and BJP’s trusted Kashmiri Pandit face. Safar, now 55, a well-travelled businessman, was founding member of Roots in Kashmir and Organizing General Secretary of Panun Kashmir.

Since 2014, Saraf operates from Anantnag’s heavily guarded Government Housing Colony, as BJP’s south-Kashmir in-charge. “I have seen a change in people’s perception towards BJP,” claims Saraf.

On an average Saraf meets fifty individuals and delegations from different areas of south-Kashmir.

“The psychological barrier that kept Kashmiris away from BJP all these years is gone now,” feels Saraf. “Kashmiris have accepted that BJP is here to stay and we have to do business with them. There is no other way out.”

The nature of grievances tackled by Saraf at Anantnag is almost same as what Bhat receives in BJP’s Srinagar office. “People still struggle to get basic necessities. It is sad to see them in such condition,” said Saraf.

Saraf too blames “local officers loyal to regional parties like NC and PDP”, for corrupting the system during last 70-years of their rule in Kashmir.

“These people (local officers) are undermining the changes brought by BJP to change the system after August 5,” feels Saraf. “If they don’t change, we will ask New Delhi to take necessary measures.”

Zubair Nazir

Saraf feels unless local officers are not transferred outside the state and non-local officers taking their place here in Kashmir, BJP’s idea of new Kashmir will not be fulfilled. “We genuinely try to help people but these officers don’t let things happen,” said Saraf. “This has to change quickly. We cannot let them ruin everything we have achieved so far.”

With local assembly elections in mind, Saraf and other BJP leaders are in a hurry to get things right.

“Of course we want to win seats in all districts across Kashmir, especially in the south,” said Saraf. “This will be a big victory for our local cadre and BJP as a party.”

But do they have numbers? According to various claims and estimates, BJP boosts of over 3 lakh native Kashmiri members, a majority of them from Baramulla district.

Unlike Saraf and Bhat, they are just members, not active members, on whom the party can rely during elections.

To become a BJP’s active member, one has to give a missed call on a centralized toll-free number. The call is returned and a link for filling one’s details is sent online. The person is then given a virtual membership card against a fee of Rs 200. “Every active member has to make 25 basic members under him,” said Bhat. “It works like a chain.”

The recent Internet ban, the longest one in a democracy, stalled BJP’s membership drives in Kashmir too.

According to data, BJP’s ranks swelled in Kashmir after every election victory: 2014 and 2019.

“Compared to Congress, who was an outcast when it first came to Kashmir, our entry is smooth,” said Saraf. “Unlike Congress in Sheikh (Abdullah’s) times, our cadre are not excommunicated and buried in separate graveyards. Instead, we are invited to marriage ceremonies and functions with respect.”

But with no competition around, BJP is having a field day, catering to people’s needs, hoping to find a way inside “hearts and minds”.

It felt almost like a victory when a small delegation of people from a Jama’at-e-Islami dominated village in Baramullah knocked at a local BJP workers door.

This die-hard BJP worker, who was isolated and ostracised for being a rukn-e-Jama’at’s (basic members) son, enjoyed every bit of it before resolving the delegation’s grievance in record time.

After they left, the young die-hard BJP worker, rang up Saraf and said, now I feel empowered.

The same feeling of “empowerment” is visible among other party workers, especially after August 5, when New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s special status and downgraded its status to a Union Territory.

Alone at top

Since August 5, there is a feeling of victory as well as urgency among BJP’s leadership and cadre.

With three former Chief Ministers still under detention, most of NC, PDP and Congress’ cadre has gone into self-hibernation. This leaves ground open for BJP to engage and work with the people.

Zubair Nazir, 31, who unsuccessfully contested state assembly elections from Srinagar’s Batamaloo constituency in 2014, is a busy man once again after staying low for a while. He now regularly stays in touch with party workers and claims to have cemented his base since August 5, in Batamaloo. Zubair is currently vice-president for BJP’s Srinagar unit.

Veer Saraf

In the early 1990s, when the militancy was at its peak, his constituency witnessed regular encounters between militants’ and government forces. The area remained dominated by both foreign and local militant for most of the 1990s.

In 2014 assembly elections Batamaloo witnessed modest polling sending PDP’s Noor Mohammad Sheikh to state legislative assembly.

But with both Noor Mohammad and his runner up Mohammad Irfan Shah of NC under house detention, Zubair is having a field day.

“After August 5, we as BJP members don’t feel any threat anymore,” said Zubair whose close aide and namesake Zubair Ahmad Parray was shot and injured in April 2018 by unknown gunmen in Srinagar.

Parray had aggressively campaigned for Zubair during 2014 elections.

But, like most of BJP’s ground force, Zubair and his men too feel ‘empowered’ and safe in the present political set-up.

Local BJP affiliates like Zubair attribute this ‘empowerment’ to BJP’s ability to deliver on its promises. “They (BJP) said they will abrogate Article 370 and they did it. It tells people how committed our party is when it comes to fulfilling a promise,” feels Zubair.

In the last six months, there has been a slow but steady migration of political workers from local regional parties like NC and PDP towards BJP.

A few months back NC’s key worker from frontier town Kupwara, Mohammad Shafi Mir, joined BJP. In February, Mir was made district president (BJP) Kupwara.

“Such kind of fair and meteoric rise is not possible in any dynastic political party,” feels Shahid, a young boy from Pulwama who joined the saffron party immediately after Modi won his second term as Prime Minister. “One can rise quickly within the party ranks if he is dedicated to the core ideology.”

Ideology or Opportunity

With BJP’s numbers swelling with each passing day, the party is keen to translate its post-August 5, success into electoral victory.  But even die-hard BJP workers it is never a cakewalk in Kashmir.

“We know when it comes to cast a vote, Kashmiris are very smart. They know what they have to do,” said Abid, a BJP’s local worker from south Kashmir’s Shopian, who worked tirelessly since 2014 to help his party improve its vote share in the militancy belt. “You can never change their mind unless they don’t absolutely believe in what you say. And as of now, I don’t see them trusting us completely.”

But Abid is sure that in coming elections BJP will improve its performance remarkably.

“In 2019, Lok Sabah elections we did better in Shopian and Tral, if we go by assembly constituency-wise data,” said Abid. “There is an opportunity which we can utilize in the current situation. People are desperate for representation, and we have to just be there.”

Note: Some names of the party workers have been changed on request.

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