Splintered Opposition, BJP consolidation & Article 370 — dynamics in play in J&K as Udhampur votes

Splintered Opposition, BJP consolidation & Article 370 — dynamics in play in J&K as Udhampur votes

New Delhi: Defections, a splintered opposition and a newly redrawn parliamentary seat after delimitation are some of the dynamics at play as Jammu and Kashmir goes in for its first Lok Sabha elections after the abrogation of Article 370.

There are five Lok Sabha seats — Baramulla, Srinagar, the newly redrawn Anantnag-Rajouri, Udhampur, and Jammu — with Udhampur first going to vote Thursday. Next to vote are Jammu (26 April), Anantnag-Rajouri (7 May), Srinagar (13 May), and Baramulla (20 May).

While wins in these polls will be a show of strength and relevance for the Kashmir-based National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as well as the Congress, the election is also important for the BJP.

The vote this time is being seen as a mandate to the BJP’s bid to legitimise its 2019 move of revoking the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

All the parties including the BJP have made the abrogation of Article 370 a central plank with clear battle lines drawn.

“In this election, I have come to appeal to the voters of the valley — give vote to whoever you want to but don’t give it to these three dynastic parties. Farooq Sahab, Mehbooba ji and Sonia Gandhi, all three work for their sons and daughters,” Union Home Minister Amit Shah told a rally Wednesday at Jammu, for seats in the Kashmir Valley where the BJP has not even fielded a candidate unlike in 2019.

Barring the main Valley-based parties, those left behind are Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference (PC) and Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Democratic People’s Azad Party (DPAP) — all of which have often been accused by the opposition as “B-Team” of the BJP.

Except BJP, all its rivals have already faced setbacks owing to split in leadership over the last five years. If Azad’s exit damaged Congress, Altaf Bukhari’s departure hollowed the PDP. Devinder Rana’s exit, once Omar Abdullah’s political advisor, was seen as a personal blow to the Abdullahs.

A win by the splintered factions is expected to result in gains for the BJP, while certainly weakening the INDIA bloc.

“Every exit has weakened the traditional regional parties. It is in the longer scheme of the BJP that advocates decline of special status so that its political narrative is vindicated. With these and many other exits over the last five years, it looks like everyone is fighting this election to the advantage of BJP,” political analyst Zafar Choudhary tells ThePrint to a query on whether the splits have benefited the BJP.

Broadly, battlelines are back to where they were in 2019. Five years ago, Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress and Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference announced the alliance; this time, it was Salman Khurshid and Omar Abdullah.

The PDP is eyeing three seats in Kashmir, with Mehbooba Mufti fighting once again from Anantnag, like in 2019. And in the two seats in Jammu region (Jammu and Udhampur), the BJP and the Congress fight it out, once again. In 2019, the BJP secured over 50 percent vote shares in both the seats of Udhampur and Jammu.

Also Read: In J&K’s Udhampur, Congress demands Article 371 as BJP trumpets 370 abrogation 

Political bearing of exits

In 2020, with several former MLAs, businessman-politician Altaf Bukhari left the PDP to form the J&K Apni Party. The split resulted in weakening of the PDP, not just politically but also in terms of resources, and that, too, at a time when it was trying to shrug off the image of having had an alliance with the BJP. 

However, PDP leaders believe that the party cadres are still with Mehbooba. “We are hoping because the cadre by and large is with us. The people who left us, I don’t think any one of them are getting elected from anywhere even for a smaller election,” senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar told ThePrint.

The former state minister added that the party’s strength is its cadre. 

The Apni Party leaders, whom ThePrint spoke to, believe that one of the major challenges is to emerge from the image that it was created by the Government of India.

“We are fighting the perception that we formed our party when there was a clampdown, internet shutdown, etc. There is resentment because of that. But then when the PDP was formed in 2002, people said Advani ji and BJP created it,” said a senior Apni party leader. “At that time (post 2019 changes), someone had to get up and engage with Delhi. We spoke to them. We raised the issues of political prisoners, internet shutdown and day-to-day crisis.”

The leader claims that his former party — the PDP— may have some cadres including in parts of Jammu region, but “there is no leader to lead them”.

The Congress, too, faced a major setback not just in J&K but also at the central leadership when former chief minister Ghulam Nabi left the party in 2022.

But Zafar Choudhary believes that  Azad’s exit “made hardly any difference to an already sagging party”, owing to his and his party’s electoral losses over the years. 

Local Congress leaders, too, believe that the departure is unlikely to take a heavy toll on the party’s electoral fortunes. But they concede that Azad’s party will cut Congress’s votes especially in Udhampur-Doda seats, which includes his hometown of Doda. 

In case of a close contest between two-time BJP MP Jitendra Singh and Congress’s Lal Singh in Udhampur, votes secured by Azad’s candidate G.M. Saroori can be a decider there.

Azad has been trying his best to tell the voters in rallies that his party’s symbol is not the ‘hand’ (Congress) but the ‘bucket’. 

In an interview with ThePrint, Azad says that it is the NC and the Congress who end up helping the BJP. “I can also say the same thing for the Congress and the National Conference. Among the other parties (barring the BJP), my party was the first to announce the candidate. That means (their candidate) is an afterthought to make the BJP win. So, according to me, they are helping the BJP. Otherwise, my candidate would have won.”

He adds that the NC and the Congress putting up a joint candidate is “just helping the BJP”. 

Meanwhile, the BJP is more optimistic about Azad’s impact. A BJP member had told ThePrint that Azad was consolidating votes in Muslim-dominated areas including those in Jammu. 

The National Conference, too, has faced a major setback. In 2021, NC provincial president Devinder Rana and senior leader Surjit Singh Slathia — amongst the few prominent Hindu faces in the party — joined the BJP. Rana was among the party’s only three candidates who won from Jammu division in 2014.

Party insiders even after two years, the duo face problems of acceptability within the local leadership of the party. 

“Rana and Slathia were always NC droplets in an ocean that belonged to the BJP. Their exit dealt the NC a blow at an entirely different level, in terms of larger acceptability among the Hindus of Jammu. Electorally, there is hardly any major advantage to the BJP or disadvantage to the NC,” says political analyst Zafar.

However, a former NC leader, who is now with the BJP, says that the NC was wiped off in Jammu. “Tell me where is the cadre? It is restricted to Kashmir and parts of Rajouri-Poonch area, where it is severely weakened.”

As a matter of fact, the NC has not fielded its candidate in the two seats of Jammu region since 2004, owing to its alliances.

The last five years were of a political upheaval in Jammu and Kashmir, says Zafar.

“Ever since the fall of Mehbooba Mufti government in June 2018, every subsequent development has been disadvantageous to regional parties — NC and PDP. The Congress being their traditional ally has suffered equally,” the political analyst adds.

“From governance and security to political narrative, everything has been monopolised by the BJP. In the new political environment, dozens of leaders left traditional parties to join the newly floated outfits or the BJP. The Supreme Court verdict upholding the abrogation of Article 370 has further left the parties in a disarray as they have been disarmed of their traditional narrative.”

Yet, multiple local BJP leaders — ThePrint spoke to — claim that this election is not an easy one considering the anti-incumbency as well as the severe dependency on the Modi factor. 

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: Ghulam Nabi won’t fight LS polls, hints at contesting assembly. ‘Can’t go back on commitment to J&K’ 


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