A smooth sailing for the Bharatiya Janata Party is in the offing after the parliamentary elections, as Indians have awarded their ruling party a second term with a sweeping mandate. The length and breadth of BJP’s vote share confirms the party breaking many stereotypes to claim a convincing victory. The voting pattern shows that despite being called a “Hindu nationalist” party, a large majority of voters in Muslim, Maoist and Adivasi dominated constituencies preferred BJP over its main competitor, the Indian National Congress. The BJP received its largest vote share from both rural and underprivileged areas of the country, and thus shed its label as a party of mercantile and urban interests.
The linchpin of BJP’s election manifesto projected an uncompromising attitude towards national security, with a focus on terrorism, border security and Kashmir. The election results prove that the BJP did not have to work too hard to convince the voters that national security was pivotal to sustain the pace and direction of both economic growth and cultural preservation. BJP’s security doctrine is guided by the belief that there is no challenge more daunting than collusion of Pakistan and China to encircle and contain India, and that the convergence as well as leverage point for both nations is Gilgit-Baltistan (POK—Pakistan Occupied Kashmir).
With a fresh look at the security paradigm, the ruling party spent the last five years exposing Pakistan and China for their onslaught on the land, resources and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, and asked both to withdraw immediately from POK, which is an integral part of Jammu & Kashmir. BJP prescribes to the view that Pakistan’s motivation as well as successes in executing terror activities in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir hinge on control over POK. Further, Pakistan’s presence in POK also enables China to commit a long term military footprint in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean Region, which is coming at India’s cost. The newly appointed Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, by making his maiden official visit to Siachen glacier, confirms the adherence to this conviction.
One will hardly hear the people of Gilgit-Baltistan say it aloud, however, BJP’s successes against Pakistan-sponsored terrorists are a source of relief for them too, since these terrorists are not just against India, but they also target and kill the Shias, Sufis and Ismailis of Gilgit-Baltistan. They damage the social fabric by violating cultural and religious practices and institutions. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are unhappy that the Pakistani military encourages these terrorists to interfere in local political affairs and enables them to exploit resources to sustain such activities. Religious polarisation between Shias and Sunnis has made Gilgit-Baltistan a hub for terrorist recruitment and training, and locals detest their land being used against Ladakh or Kashmir. The locals remind Pakistani rulers that the people living on both sides of Line of Control share the same ethnic and religious makeup and they do not approve of violence as a means to solve the Kashmir issue. Those who witnessed the Kargil War still narrate how Pakistani incursions damaged the economic wellbeing of the region and how the destruction to mosques, khanqahs and imambargahs in Ladakh caused emotional pain to the region’s Balti community.
BJP advocates the reunion of Gilgit-Baltistan with India, which will help the natives enjoy citizenship rights in a Constitutional set-up like their kin in Ladakh. This view was well received by the Ladakhi Muslims and helped BJP expand its vote bank. According to Zulikha Bano, a Balti activist from the Nubra valley in Leh district, more than 40% of Muslim voters in Nubra supported BJP’s Jamyang T. Namgyal—which is the highest Muslim vote share for any BJP candidate. Zulikha claims that villages such as Chulungkha, Tyakshi and Turtuk, with a Balti population, voted for the BJP since the latter backs opening the Nubra-Chorbat (Chorbat valley is in Gilgit-Baltistan) road to revive commerce across the Line of Control and ease communication between members of the divided families. Zulikha states that the local Baltis also praise BJP for declaring their villages “tourist-accessible”, which has enhanced local business and livelihood prospects.
The Kargil based Mohammad Hassan Pasha, who is the vice president of Jammu & Kashmir BJP Yuva Morcha (Youth Front), feels that the prejudice against BJP is giving way to rational thinking, and support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi is growing among the youth of Kargil. He said that the Baltis appreciate BJP’s decision to establish the university and a separate administrative division for Ladakh. According to Pasha, more than one-quarter of Ladakhi Muslims supported BJP during the current elections, which was a significant change.
The establishment of a separate Ladakh division has also renewed hopes in the Zanskar valley, where people have placed their trust in the BJP for the creation of a separate district and representation in the J&K Legislative Assembly. Similarly, BJP has also become popular among the residents of Changthang along China’s border as they believe that PM Modi’s change in norms of engagement with hostile neighbours and counter-ops in Doklam and Balakot have increased their sense of security. In the coming months, BJP’s approach to win hearts and minds could well alleviate the grievances of the Shina-speakers of Gurez and the Paharis of Poonch, who desire for the establishment of Ladakh-style autonomous hill councils. Like Zanskar, Gurez also deserves a separate district and Assembly seat since these valleys remain cut off from the rest of the country during the six snowiest months of winter.
Notwithstanding the hopes and aspirations of the voters, BJP still lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha, or the Upper House of Parliament, limiting the Constitutional scope to match these expectations. However, the ruling party is likely to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha by the end of 2020, which will clear the way to push for major legislations.
PM Modi has emerged as one of the most powerful global leaders and recent surgical raids inside Pakistan have improved his standing within the country. But a leader can sustain successes and popularity only with the help of his people. PM Modi can create allies in the border districts of J&K by empowering ethnic and religious minorities. The Baltis of Nubra, the nomads of Changthang, the POK refugees, the Kashmiri Pandits, and the most oppressed yet least mentioned Gujjar and Bakarwal communities of Pir Panjal and Chenab deserve immediate attention as they all look towards BJP to be uplifted. Giving a voice and political representation to these marginalised people will strengthen the diverse make-up of J&K and send a positive message to Gilgit-Baltistan.
The author is a researcher and human rights advocate. Currently, Sering is running the Washington DC based Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies.