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Is BJP altering its game by playing cards smartly in J&K?

Narendra Modi has changed the game in Jammu & Kashmir where the moral ground is slipping from under the separatists and the dynasts. From Omar Abdullah to the PDP‘s Mehbooba Mufti, all are forced to acknowledge the change and fight for their political spaces.

November 14, 2014 / 04:19 PM IST

R Jagannathan

The conviction of seven army officers in the Machil (Kupwara) fake encounter case of 2010 in Jammu and Kashmir should be seen as one of a piece in the BJP's gameplan where it is changing the game itself in this strife-torn state. The conviction has forced Chief Minister Omar Obdullah to acknowledge it as a "watershed" event, and the chances are it will impact sentiments in the state ahead of assembly elections due this month and the next.

With a series of moves that began some time in December 2013, Narendra Modi has quietly shifted the chatter on Jammu & Kashmir away from mere separatism to development and peace. Separatism is not about to decline suddenly, but the buzz around the state is changing quietly. The links to the nation are being reforged. Modi has probably been to J&K more than to any other states after being election, even choosing to spend Diwali day in the Muslim-dominated valley.

Enthused by the party’s terrific showing in the Lok Sabha polls, when it emerged as J&K’s biggest party in terms of popular vote and won three of the six seats (Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh), the BJP has changed its gameplan from merely seeing itself as a Jammu-based Hindu party to one that could well lead or be part of the next government. It is taking the fight to the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley.

Early indications of the BJP's intentions in J&K were given by Amit Shah when he was elected BJP president in August. He talked not just of doing well in J&K, but winning.He had said: "The conditions in Jammu & Kashmir are very sad and the current government is running an establishment filled with corruption. It is not only the responsibility of state BJP activists but every activist in every state to ensure that the BJP wins there. Both the political families of the state have misused the money meant for progress". The PDP has been seen as softer on the BJP than the NC, but by attacking both Shah was essentially saying the BJP's has set its sights very high in the state.


In the 87-seat assembly, elections to which are due in five phases starting from 25 November, the halfway mark is 44. But after initially targeting Mission 44, the party has now upped its sights to Mission 50. This is typical Modi – a man who believes in setting stretch targets to motivate the cadre. In the Lok Sabha election, once the opinion polls started showing a shift in mood towards the BJP, the original target of 272+ was moved up to 300+ – with the party ending up somewhere in-between at 282.

Mission 50, of course, is not achievable without the BJP making an entry in the Kashmir Valley, which has 46 of the 87 seats. The rest of the seats are in Jammu (37), where the BJP expects to sweep, and Ladakh (four).

If the BJP has to have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming the largest party in the J&K assembly, it will have to win Jammu and Ladakh clear, and make inroads in the Valley where it has never once won a seat. Or it will have to get allies from among the smaller Muslim parties.

The BJP is thus not only changing the gameplan, but the game itself by playing its cards smartly.

The first part of the gameplan unfolded in December 2013, when Modi visited the state for the Lok Sabha campaign, where he openly called for a debate on article 370. He did not specifically say article 370, which allows J&K a special status, needs to go, but asked if it had served any useful purpose. The “secular” commentariat criticised the statement as a traditional BJP ploy to pander to the Jammu Hindu votebank, but with hindsight we can see where it fits in. It is part of the BJP’s larger goal of integrating J&K into the mainstream by subsuming state politics into its national gameplan. Till Modi entered the picture, J&K elections have always been about pandering to local sentiment, especially anti-India sentiment. By raising the BJP’s political profile in J&K, Modi has thrown a challenge to Kashmiris in the Valley to look at the world beyond their pond.

By openly talking about being a part of the next government, the BJP has flung the gauntlet at the regional parties and the separatists. Both the National Conference and the PDP, traditional rivals in the valley, are now fighting to gain traction for a significant share of the Muslim vote – only to find the BJP also making a pitch for it. Even more significant, by throwing hints about a possible Hindu chief minister for J&K, the BJP has forced the separatists to rethink too: they now know that if their boycott succeeds, they may actually be helping the BJP. A substantial vote boycott means seats will be won on low polling. This has revived hopes among the smaller Muslim parties that they too can win seats on the basis of a thin vote, especially if the Pandits thrown out of the valley are also able to vote. The Election Commission is ensuring this will happen.

This is why the BJP is making overtures to the smaller parties and individuals with some credibility to either join the party, or be ready for post-poll alliances. It is fielding Hina Bhat, a dentist by profession, in Amira Kadal in the valley who will benefit from a thin Pandit vote and presumably a small Muslim vote too. And despite the obvious threat to her life from separatists, she is selling a vision of smart cities and expressway, says this Reuters ground report.

A few days ago, the BJP scored another small perceptional gain when it got Sajjad Gani Lone to meet Modi and he came out singing the latter’s praises. Lone is quoted as saying after the meeting: “The PM is a great human being. I was pleasantly surprised with his down-to-earth personality, his vision about bringing in investments into the state,” adding, “I could not make out whether I am talking to the PM or my elder brother.”(Read a Niticentral report here).

Lone, who was once firmly in the separatist camp, has avoided contesting elections after his father, head of the People’s Conference, was assassinated by terrorists in 2002. Sajjad’s party is now contesting 12 seats in Kupwara and Handwara and has not ruled out a post-poll alliance with BJP.

But even as the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to get potential allies in the Valley, it has pushed through subtle shifts in policy that send out a softer message of change to the estranged population in the valley, where the security forces and the army are often seen as enemies of the people.

In the recent floods, Modi dived in headlong by taking ownership of the rescue efforts through the army. The separatists were seen as boorish spoilers who tried telling suffering people that they should not take the help of the army. Thousands of lives were saved by the army, and the average Kashmiri Muslim knows that.

More significantly, we have seen the army take ownership of some of the killings that alienated the Valley from India.

In the Badgam incident of 3 November, two Kashmiri youths wee killed by a trigger-happy army unit which feared that they may be terrorists. But within days, the army apologised for its mistake and promised a quick probe and action. “We take responsibility for the death of the two boys in Kashmir,” the chief of the army's northern command, DS Hooda, told the media.

This has seldom happened in the past where the army would tell its own version of the incident and stick to it.

Today (13 November), the army announced the conviction of seven armymen, including two officers, involved in a 2010 fake encounter in Machil in Kupwara district. They get life imprisonment, and their service benefits stand suspended.

The impact of this judgment in the Valley cannot be understated. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was forced to tweet approval. “This is a watershed moment. No one in Kashmir ever believed that justice would be done in such cases.”

Quite clearly, Narendra Modi has changed the game in Jammu & Kashmir where the moral ground is slipping from under the separatists and the dynasts. From Omar Abdullah to the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti, all are forced to acknowledge the change and fight for their political spaces.

This also brings dangers: Pakistan-based separatists will obviously try to step up the violence in the run-up – and during – the five-phase elections.

The security forces will clearly have to be on guard. But even if the terrorists strike it will mean the same thing: the ground is slipping under them.

J&K is on the cusp of hope – like the rest of India.

The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group

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