There was a time, not too long ago, when Altaf Thakur, a Kashmiri Muslim, was denied treatment for his child by a doctor at a Srinagar hospital because he belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party. From there to last week, when a protest demonstration was held in front of the BJP office in Srinagar's Rajbagh by ticket aspirants, all Kashmiri Muslims, demanding the "mandate" to contest the Assembly elections in the Valley. The journey has been long for Altaf Thakur and the BJP in the Kashmir. "In 2008, we could not find candidates to fight the election, whereas this year we have announced over 30 candidates already," he says, sitting in the BJP office, surrounded by workers from far-flung areas.
The BJP has been following a "one booth, ten youth" campaign for a year now. According to Thakur, 322 organisations have joined hands with the BJP, including the local unit of the Janata Dal United. Quite a few Congress workers have joined the BJP, including three state secretaries, four district secretaries and their followers.
A grassroots worker from Delhi, who has been travelling across the Valley and has been staying overnight in different villages, shows this correspondent photographs of villagers in far-flung areas declaring their support for the BJP. He also carries with him a list of BJP members in each constituency, which is being fed into the central database. It is not a small list. "Prime Minister Narendra Modi's development message is having an impact on the ground," he claims. However, the BJP knows it has an even longer way to go before it can open its account in the Valley.
BJP sources claim that quite a few leaders from the PDP, NC and the Congress are in touch with them, in the probability of a hung Assembly, with the BJP getting most of the Jammu seats and the PDP a majority of the seats in the Valley.
The BJP is primarily targeting seats where there are a large number of migrant Pandit voters, such as Habba Kadal and Amira Kadal in Srinagar, apart from Tral, Pahalgam, Anantnag, Bijbehera, etc. Habba Kadal has around 20,000 migrant votes. In the 2008 Assembly elections, Shamim Firdous of the National Conference won this seat by getting 2,374 votes. BJP's Hira Lal Chatta, who got 672 votes, came second. The Amira Kadal constituency witnessed 14.97% voting in 2008. NC's Nasir Aslam Wani, who won the seat, secured 3,912 votes, while his nearest opponent was People's Democratic Party's Parvez Ahmad Bhat, who got 3,103 votes. However, a lot will depend on the turnout this time in places like Srinagar and other seats where voting is always low and where migrant voters have a large "presence". In fact, NC's candidate from Sopore, Haji Muhammad Ashraf Ganai appealed to Syed Ali Shah Geelani to reconsider his boycott call especially in segments that have a significant number of migrant voters. The high turnout last Tuesday is being seen by some to be a result of the separatists not enforcing their boycott call with diligence, to stop the BJP from winning any seats in the Valley.
The Kashmir unit of the BJP claims that these Assembly elections will be a "watershed moment" for J&K. They say that they will come to power by getting 44+ seats in an 87-member Assembly. But these sources also admit that a lot is going on behind the scenes to achieve that target. They claim that quite a few leaders from the PDP, NC and the Congress are in touch with them, in the probability of a hung Assembly, with the BJP getting most of the Jammu seats and the PDP a majority of the seats in the Valley. Sources say that they will not put up beyond 30-32 candidates in the Valley, which accounts for 46 of J&K's 87 Assembly seats. In the rest of the seats, there are "arrangements about which even the workers on the ground may not know", claimed a source.
Speculation is rife that one of the not-so-secret arrangements is with former separatist leader Sajjad Lone. As a gesture of goodwill, the BJP has not fielded a candidate against him in Handwara. Lone's People's Conference has stepped out of its turf in north Kashmir to contest 25 seats and is hoping to pull off a few surprises. And in the complicated politics of Kashmir, his brother Bilal Lone of the separatist Hurriyat, which has given a boycott call of the polls, is said to be backing his campaign.
Image 2ndWhile talking to this newspaper, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti charged the BJP of dividing the state "not only on communal lines but also on regional or sectarian lines. Because they talk of Gujjar votes, Pahari votes, Shia votes, Kashmiri Pandit votes."
BJP sources counter the charge by saying, "What is wrong in trying to empower groups that are on the sidelines?" In a seat like Tral, which has around 7,000 Sikh votes, the BJP thinks it Sikh candidate, Sardar Avtar Singh will put up a good fight. This seat has the potential to have an impact on other Sikh pockets in the whole state.
BJP's candidate from Srinagar's Sonawar, Darakhshan Andrabi, who is fighting against Omar Abdullah, told this newspaper that "the Prime Minister must promise something big" in terms of development, for Kashmiris.
The BJP is focusing on first-time voters who comprise 10-15% of the electorate. "An expert team has come from New Delhi to look into avenues for these youth to get jobs and technical training. We have conducted many meetings and workshops for these youth," a volunteer working on the ground said. A senior BJP leader said that they have requested business houses to earmark jobs for the youth of J&K.
The BJP is hoping that PM Modi's pro-development image will help the party get some undecided voters particularly in Srinagar, a city that got traffic signals for the first time last year.
But then this is Kashmir, and as a Kashmiri Muslim gentleman with a white collar job, told this correspondent, "A lot will depend on whether I am able to go out to cast my vote. If the CRPF gives us protection on voting day, I will vote for the BJP because I am attracted to Modi's development plank." It is a different matter that the gentleman cannot be named for fear of adverse consequences.
With inputs from Noor-ul-Qamrain in Srinagar