In J&K, marginal parties may leave outsized impact
In Jammu and Kashmir, some small political outfits are capable of leaving a big impact on the election outcome.
In a state where low voter turnout and narrow margins are the norm and separatists ask people to stay away from elections, parties such as the Refugees United Front (RUF), Awami Itehad Party (AIP) and the Panthers Party fielding their candidates is a concern for established players.
Polling in the state’s six constituencies will be held in five phases, starting on April 10. The state’s ruling National Conference (NC) party held half the seats in the 15th Lok Sabha and its alliance partner Congress two, while an independent had won last time in Ladakh, the country’s north-most constituency. Most constituencies will see the presence of small parties this time.
The RUF – an outfit of the Pakistani Hindus who are settled in parts of Jammu after 1947 – has fielded Labha Ram Gandhi from Jammu, a seat that the BJP hopes to wrest from the Congress.
The RUF has historically been with the Congress and NC. According to RUF members, Gandhi has been fielded to counter People’s Democratic Party’s Yashpal Sharma, a refugee himself. The two refugees can reduce the Congress nominee’s numbers or alter the winning or losing margins. The BJP has fielded Jugal Kishore to take on Congress’ sitting MP Madan Lal Sharma.
Prof Bhim Singh, founder of the Panthers Party, can leave a similar impact in Udhampur-Doda. With its influence in Udhampur district – Singh garnered almost 70,000 votes in the last election – the party can upset the equation between Congress and BJP. Congress’ sitting MP Lal Singh is on a weak wicket here this time. BJP’s candidate is Jintender Singh Rana.
State Congressmen have finally suceeded in making party high command to field Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad from Udhampur-Doda. They believe Azad can manage to win the seat because he belongs to the Doda region and his candidature can have a positive impact on the Jammu seat BJP is likely to wrest otherwise. While a reluctant Azad is finally in the fray, for the first time for a Lok Sabha election frm his home state, he has started feeling the heat. Congress calculates that the Muslim voters of the region would ensure his victory but PDP, the state's principal opposition, has fielded a candidate and is likely to cut into Azad’s Muslim vote share.
For Ladakh, which is going to polls in May, the Congress may take its time in making the choice formal. It is still indecisive whether to field Rigzin Spalbar, chief executive councilor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh, or its district president Tsering Samphel. While it is almost certain that the party will pick either of the two Buddhists from Leh, ignoring the Kargil region could spell trouble for the party. Leaders from Leh and Kargil, which form the Ladakh seat, have rarely supported a candidate mutually.
In Kashmir, the fight is between the NC and PDP, the two main regional players, though they may face some erosion in votes because of the small parties.
The NC is fielding its incumbent MPs, while the PDP has fielded three of its veterans. It is NC chief Farooq Abdullah versus former state Finance Minister Tariq Hamid Karra in Srinagar, Shareef-ud-Din Shariq against former Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beig in Baramulla and Mehboob Beig versus PDP President Mehbooba Mufti in Anantnag.
In north Kashmir’s Baramulla seat, there are two key small players – the Peoples’ Conference of Sajjad Ghani Lone and Engineer Rashid’s AIP. Both have patches of influence across north Kashmir’s three districts. Lone, who got 65,403 votes in the last Lok Sabha poll, is not contesting this time. But his nominee is expected to still capture part of the votes he got last time.
Similarly, the AIP can cut a sizable chunk of votes in the north and elsewhere because its founder, Rashid, an independent MLA. Considered a model lawmaker, Rashid had tried a tie-up with the Aam Aadmi Party but the talks failed at the last moment. He is fielding his candidates in all the three constituencies in Kashmir. Though none of his trio is a winning candidate, they will, however, cut the influence of the principal parties.
In central Kashmir’s Srinagar seat, held by Farooq Abdullah, the rise of the AAP in Budgam can dent the prospects of the ruling party. On the other corner of the constituency, at Ganderbal – the assembly seat held by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah - the AIP has made inroads.
Anantnag in South Kashmir is considered a cake walk for the PDP this time. But the AIP is planning to field a high-profile candidate for the region.
Last Lok Sabha polls witnessed a voter turnout of less than 40%. With a comparatively high number of candidates, the margins were also small. Barring Baramulla and Jammu, where the NC and Congress winners had high margins, the difference between the winner and the nearest rival was thin elsewhere. The PDP and Congress lost Anantnag and Ladakh by 5,224 and 4,546 votes, respectively, while the BJP lost Udhampur by just 13,469 votes. Even Farooq Abdullah’s winning margin of 30,239 wasn’t that wide. That makes the number of votes polled by the small outfits crucial in the final count.