The BJP’s secret toil behind Project Kashmir

Srinagar: Behind the scenes, and away from the media glare, there are changes taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Changes that may appear small, almost invisible on the surface, but alterations that may redefine the arithmetic of politics and rewrite the rules of electoral coalitions. Calibrations so laboriously and meticulously worked that the vibrations of each could create a political landscape never seen before in the history of the state as it goes for Assembly elections later this month. Jammu and Kashmir may well be set to script a new historic episode- moving away from the tradition of dynastic politics that the state has been used to in the past- transitioning from the Muftis to the Abdullahs- shifting batons habitually over the years- presided over by what used to be the most influential national party in the state- the Congress.  

 Almost as a beacon of the many changes in the offing, more than seven new parties have been registered in Kashmir- over the past three months alone- unnoticed among the flood and its aftermath. But what might appear at first like enthusiasm for the approaching six-yearly Assembly polls, is starting to offer a more plausible explanation, now that the flood-waters have settled. The answer seems to be- the BJP- a party that has never won an Assembly seat in the Valley, but that is now making a familiar, ambitious reach towards forming the government in the country’s only Muslim-majority state.

Mir Ehsan reports for The Indian Express that the BJP has been toiling away silently. Researching, strategising, planning, networking, experimenting, learning and giving it all it takes, to make a dent in Jammu and Kashmir. Party president Amit Shah’s mission 44+ is very much on the anvil, riding on the Modi success mantra- an inclusive development agenda, that promises a clean break from a culture of corruption and nepotism, as well as change, where the status quo of a military fortress, fear and hopelessness have been the norm.   

The BJP campaign will be led- not surprisingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will address rallies in all the three regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Modi will begin campaigning immediately after he returns from his foreign tour on November 20. The five-phase polls start on November 25. Posters and banners will also have pictures of Union minister Jitendra Singh (who belongs to Jammu), former Congress MP Lal Singh, Moti Kaul, state party chief Jugal Kishore, Hina Bhat and BJP Ladakh MP Thupsan Chhewang. RSS ideologue and BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav claims “there are strong undercurrents in favour of Modi in the Valley, especially in North Kashmir”, and a lot of anger against the state government. “Our main focus will be development and the slogan will be to defeat both the PDP and NC, two family-run entities which are behind the backwardness of the state,” he says. 

In Jammu, the BJP is brimming with confidence about improving in its stupendous performance of earlier this year, when it won 48 per cent of the total votes cast in the Lok Sabha polls. It had led in 24 of Jammu’s 37 Assembly segments, and stood second in half-a-dozen more. It is these seats in Chenab valley and Rajouri district where it finished second narrowly that it is concentrating its focus on. A leader admits though that the PDP may prove to be a party-pooper. “We do not know whether the resentment against the NC government will help the PDP,” he says. 

The BJP will soon issue a “chargesheet” against the Omar Abdullah government, before releasing its manifesto on November 15.

Contesting all the 87 Assembly constituencies for the first time, the BJP is banking on picking up around 25 seats in Jammu (of total 37), three of four in Ladakh and three-four of the 46 in Kashmir. The trick lies in how the BJP will take that total of 32 to over the half-way mark of 44, and it’s here that the smaller parties and Independents come in. Ram Madhav stirred the waters when he visited Kashmir on October 31, just after the announcement of the polls, and met People’s Conference Chairman Sajjad Lone, Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir and other leaders. But that was Madhav’s third visit to the region in four months. Another BJP general secretary, J P Nadda, who is considered close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, visited the Valley in July and then again in August. He held detailed discussions with Lone.

The BJP has had meetings with Kashmir’s Grand Mufti Bashir-ud-Din and prominent Shia and Sunni leaders. It has held talks with smaller parties and Independents. Madhav has also been meeting former bureaucrats and civil society members who have taken the political plunge. And when the PM visited Srinagar on Diwali, two of the people on his short guest-list were Congress leaders with counter-insurgency links. 

Mir Ehsan says, the BJP is set to tone down its rhetoric on controversial issues concerning Kashmir in the run-up to the polls, instead invoking Modi’s slogan of Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas, and is poised to induct prominent faces from other parties. BJP insiders said one such person would join the party on November 9 in New Delhi, while another leader referred to as “the right hand man of a senior Congress leader” is expected to come into the fold in Jammu next week. Several prominent Congress faces of the Jammu region have already walked over to the BJP. Lone may have been the most prominent Kashmir voice to indicate that his meeting with the BJP was more than a courtesy call, but for a while now, the party has been setting its chips in place. What is also clear is that whatever the form of the alliance the BJP strikes with Independents or smaller parties in Kashmir, it will be post-elections, depending on how short it is of 44. As anyone who has treaded the minefield of elections in Kashmir will tell you, that suits all of them. 

BJP vice-president and Kashmir affairs in-charge Ramesh Arora says the party began devising a strategy to woo Kashmir two years ago, led by Madhav. Soon after he took over in January 2013, Arora met nearly all the stakeholders in the Valley, but for the separatist Hurriyat Conference. “I met the Grand Mufti, and prominent Sunni and Shia religious leaders, besides politicians not affiliated with the National Conference, PDP and Congress,” he says. Altaf Thakur, a BJP media advisor and former general secretary, who has been taking care of the itinerary of central party leaders in Kashmir, says the party has made “deep inroads”. “Once the results are out, you will see we have allies in Kashmir. We can even accomplish this mission (Mission 44+) without taking anybody’s support.” 

Lone was always high on the BJP list. He had split from separatist ranks to contest the 2009 parliamentary polls and to field candidates this time. While the party failed to win, the son of the late mainstream-turned-separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone managed to secure a good chunk of votes in Kupwara district of north Kashmir for his party, and still holds sway there. Though Lone is planning to contest elections from most Valley seats, his focus is on Kupwara, where his party is in a position to win a couple of seats. Lone himself will contest from Handwara. Confirming his meeting with BJP leaders, Lone says he is open to anything. “The national party that dominated the political scene in Kashmir was the Congress, and they confined themselves to the Abdullahs and Muftis. Now there is another national party in power and its national leaders come to Kashmir and meet people like Sajjad Lone.” 

On October 31, Madhav met Ghulam Hassan Mir, a founder-member of the PDP who had, in 2008, floated his own Democratic Party Nationalist. Currently the Agriculture Minister, he has been representing Tangmarg for 12 years. His party is contesting 10-12 seats in the Valley. While aligned with the Congress, Mir has kept other channels open. He enjoys personal ties with leaders in New Delhi, including former Army chief and BJP minister V K Singh. Talking about his meeting with BJP leaders, Mir says, “For a politician, nobody is an untouchable… One thing is clear, in the next government, our role will be important.” 

Madhav has also met Hakim Yasin, another former minister and senior Kashmiri politician who has formed the People’s Democratic Front. Yasin enjoys clout in pockets of Budgam district and has been representing Khan Sahib since 1996 in the Assembly. Yasin doesn’t acknowledge meeting Ram Madhav, but adds that politicians can’t close doors to opponents. Further, he says, “We can help any party or coalition that assures development of the state and resolution of our issues.” Besides, Mir and Yasin are part of the newly formed Awami Muthida Mahaz, which includes CPM general secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami. They are planning to rope in Engineer Rashid, the Independent legislator from North Kashmir’s Langate, who has his own outfit called the Awami Ittehad Party. Together, they can win at least four-six seats. Rashid’s party is planning to contest more than 10 to 12 seats, in Kashmir as well as the Muslim belts of Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu province. Rashid acknowledges being in talks with the Mahaz, as well as the BJP. “I put several conditions before the BJP,” he says. “I will support anyone who can help resolve the Kashmir issue.” 

Tarigami however, cleverly sidesteps the charge of hobnobbing with the BJP. The CPM has a tactical understanding with many parties and is also contesting seats with Yasin’s and Mir’s parties, he says. “It would be difficult for us to go with the BJP. But what can I say if Mir sahib (Ghulam Hassan Mir) has met BJP leaders?” When Prime Minister Modi visited Srinagar on Diwali, the Congress boycotted the function where he met delegations of political parties, except for two partymen. They included Imtiyaz Parray, the son of Kuka Parray, the founder of government-sponsored militia Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, and one of Ikhwan’s former senior members, Usman Majeed. “I went as the son of Kuka Parray, not as a Congress member. We had been invited by the PM and we highlighted the problems of our area,” says Imtiyaz, who is planning to contest from Sonawari. Majeed, a former minister, has good connections in New Delhi as well as the Army. He will stand from Bandipore. 

Congress vice-president G N Monga denies the possibility of Majeed and Imtiyaz crossing over to the BJP after the polls. “There is an anti-defection law and that is not easy,” he says. There are other floaters the BJP is counting on drifting its way. Lately, Ram Madhav has been calling on former bureaucrats and civil society members who are either part of established political parties or have formed their own. One such outfit is the Kashmir Development Front, a brainchild of former bureaucrat Farooq Renzu, who is considered close to religious groups such as the Anjuman-e-Tableeg-ul-Islam and Karwani-e-Islamia. The Kashmir Development Front is planning to contest six-10 seats on the plank of “development”, which fits quite well with the BJP’s agenda. “Kashmir has been ignored by ruling parties on the development front,” says Renzu. The J&K Save Party, Tahreek-e-Haq and People’s Republic Party are other parties that have come into being in the past few weeks. The Tahreek-e-Haq was formed by Shazad Asim, a former PDP worker who has done his doctorate in music. Asim wanted to contest from Sopore, but was denied a ticket by the PDP. He wants to field candidates from several seats in north Kashmir now. Asim admits being approached by the BJP, and being “impressed by the performance of Hakim Yasin, Engineer Rashid and Ghulam Hassan Mir” — all leaders on the BJP’s radar. 

The recently-established Peoples Republic Party used to be an NGO, which was set up by Dr Farooq Dar in south Kashmir. Having emerged as a political party, it has given tickets to panchayat members. The BJP’s own focus is on four-five seats with a large number of Kashmiri Pandit votes. The party has formed teams to motivate them to vote, including those living in camps. Conversely, the party hopes, these constituencies will see a low turnout of non-Pandit voters. If it gets the calculation right, this could work for the BJP in Habba Kadal, Amira Kadal and Sopore seats. 

Habba Kadal, from where the BJP has fielded a Pandit, former Panun Kashmir leader Moti Kaul, is considered the safest bet for the party. But it could also spring a surprise in Amira Kadal, where it has as its candidate Dr Hina Bhat, whose father Shafi Bhat represented the constituency earlier. The BJP has also fielded three Gujjars from the Valley, hoping that the community, that comprises a substantial number in border areas, will vote for it. The Paharis and Gujjars traditionally vote for candidates from their own tribes. 

In Kargil in Ladakh, the BJP has fielded a Shia, Munshi Aziz. In all, the party has fielded 11 Muslim candidates in Kashmir, apart from more than nine in Jammu. Earlier, it was difficult for the BJP to find candidates in the Valley, says Arora. “Now even politicians from other parties are joining us.” For the first time, the BJP will bag seats in Kashmir, he says. To further ensure that, the party is all set to shed its hardliner image in the run-up to the polls, including soft-pedalling on Article 370, which is not likely to find a mention in its manifesto for the state. The party will also urge separatists to embrace mainstream politics. “This is the time for them to work for development. They should fight both the corrupt NC and PDP,” Madhav says. “We are trying to cash in on the moderate reputation of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” adds Arora. 

Of late, in quotes that have not gone unnoticed in Kashmir, some local leaders of the BJP have been claiming that the chief minister of the state will be a Muslim. The BJP has always talked earlier about the need for a Hindu CM in the state, to cater to its strong Jammu vote bank. Incidentally, this time it is Congress leader and minister Shyam Lal Sharma who said that the next CM could be a Hindu, raising many eyebrows in the party in the Valley. While Sharma has since kept his silence, Kashmir and the BJP are poised for one of their most remarkable elections ever. Should the party come within even sniffing distance of power, its symbolism for the party, the country and especially the state won’t be lost. 

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