Ghulam Nabi Azad feels the heat in Kashmir as BJP steps up Narendra Modi campaign
Ghulam Nabi Azad is the most popular politician in the area, a vast mountainous constituency which is tacitly polarized.
BATOTE: In Chenab Valley, a region battered by heavy rains and snowfall, a Kashmiri-speaking Muslim from Jammu is feeling the heat.
Ghulam Nabi Azad is the most popular politician in the area, a vast mountainous constituency which is tacitly polarized. Azad continues to be the main choice to govern Jammu and Kashmir but BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is giving him a run for his money.
“If we see the election as Azad versus Jetendera Singh Rana (BJP candidate), it is a cakewalk for Azad,” says a resident, Pradeep Singh, in Doda. “But if it is Azad versus Modi, the dynamics changes.”
The region has remained polarized historically but the immediate instance being talked in whispers are the riots of August 2013, when Hindus and Muslims fought on the day of Eid. Apart from three killings including two Muslims, the rioters destroyed 35 vehicles and nearly 100 shops.
Last weekend when BJP candidate Rana drove around town his young followers, wearing Modi masks, put up an impressive show. “After the Modi government takes over
an impartial probe into the Kishtwar riots of August 9 will be announced,” Rana said. “Neither the losses incurred by the business community were compensated for nor were the culprits responsible for riots brought to book.” This promise has the currency in neighbouring Bhaderwah and echoes are felt in Udhampur and Kathua.
Perhaps Azad had felt the pulse and reiterated his reluctance to contest. But the Congress party forced him to make it to the parliament for the first time in his political career from his home turf. He did contest from Bhaderwah assembly segment in April 2006 when he was already the chief minister. He filed his papers and skipped campaigning and created a record of sorts by taking almost all the votes except 4,057 that the BJP polled.
A repeat of this record may be difficult because the matrix has changed. He has 16 other assembly segments (as part of his constituency) that include populous districts of Udhampur and Kathua where BJP has a sound base. It is the idea of unseating Congress in Delhi that is dominating the scene here than caring about Azad, the ‘son of the soil’.
Congress has been getting a good vote share from the twin districts. This time party seems to be outsmarted by BJP mobilization. Denying mandate to Lal Singh, the MP for last two terms, has contributed to the whisper campaign against Azad. That is perhaps why Azad is focusing more on Kathua-Udhampur districts rather than Doda-Kishtwar-Ramban-Reasi belt.
“We must get around 30% of the Hindu vote,” said a NC lawmaker currently campaigning for Azad. “This will get an edge only if we ensure better participation in Muslims belts.”
Even managing that sounds difficult, given the terrain and weather conditions. Deputy Commissioner Kishtwar Javed Ahmad Khan said he had 44 polling stations in Wadwan, Madwa and Dachan which are inaccessible and for some of them he required a chopper for the polling staff. Some areas still have four feet of snow. In neighbouring Doda, there are two stations that required choppers for deploying the staff. Barring occasional choppers to select spots all these Muslim-dominated areas witnessed modest campaigning.
Congress has represented this constituency eight times and BJP thrice. In 2008 assembly polls, this 17-assembly-segment constituency had NCs presence limited to two seats as bulk of seats are with Congress (8), BJP (4) and Panthers Party (2) with one by an independent.
Though Congress retained the seat in 2009, its influence had declined. BJP and Congress retained seven seats each and Panthers Party improved its tally to three. But voters say the past calculations lack any relevance to 2014 because Modi has changed the equation.
Coalition partners, however, believe Azad continues to have enormous influence in the constituency cutting across faiths. “Can you imagine that it can only be Azad who can get this constituency two mini-medical colleges?” says Brij Mohan Sharma, NCs MLC from Kishtwar. “I know the region and I can tell you most of the Hindus will vote for him.”
Lawyer Asim Hashmi said Azad’s profile and the contributions to the region made people back him even though Congress is facing anti-incumbency.
“It is a wave for Modi,” said resident Raj Kumar in Batote. “Youngsters support Modi but I know people who still do not think abandoning Azad is a good idea.”
After PDP, state’s principal opposition, bled the ruling coalition in Jammu-Poonch elections (in phase-II), the worry in NC and Congress circles is the party should not end up repeating the same in Udhampur. That was perhaps why Omar Abdullah spoke more against Muftis’ (father and daughter) than Modi when Rahul visited the region.
PDP lacks any significant presence in this constituency. It barely polled 3.16% in 2008 assembly elections and 4.95% in 2009 Lok Sabha polls. After Azad decided to be in the fray, the party cancelled all the eight public meeting that Mufti Sayeed was supposed to address. As the cadres resented, the party sent Mehbooba to douse the flames.
Though Mufti tactfully gives more importance to forthcoming assembly polls any vote that PDP pockets is a net loss to Azad. Though not a winning party, PDP says they are contesting because they are in politics. “We are not 20:20 players,” says Naeem Akhter. “We have stakes in the region for the next assembly polls.”