Kashmiri Pandits and the BJP: A cut most unkind
BJP president's assertion that party was let down by Pandits is unfair, given how actively the community has supported the BJP.
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In J&K, with its Mission 44+, the BJP had mounted its most audacious attempt at power yet. Arguably, more ambitious than even the Mission 272+. With 25 seats and 11 lakh-odd votes, no less than the party president, Amit Shah, declared victory. Seemed all right. After all, 25 seats is more than twice their best ever tally, of 11 seats won during the last elections. And, at 11 lakh-odd votes, the BJP also has the highest number of votes among all the parties that contested the elections this time in the state. So, on the face of it, there are no issues left to be joined. But, then, there is a lot beneath the surface. Some of it was presented a day after the election results, on December 23.
On January 1, at a lunch in Delhi, talking informally, the president of the BJP is reported to have alluded to Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) not turning out to vote for the BJP in the J&K elections this time. His allusion had a sense of disappointment, of being let down by an entire community when they were expected to deliver his party a few seats in the Valley. He is not the only one. Some enterprising journalists from the Valley, on the very day of the results, floated this theory that the "real boycotters" in these elections were actually the Kashmiri Pandits who had failed to turn up and vote. They attributed the BJP's dashed hopes in the Valley to these reluctant KPs. Those in a hurry to look for easy scapegoats will find this proposition quite handy. Those who aren't can continue reading.
Just an aside, designating electoral contests as missions seems like a smart way to vest the contests with a sense of urgency. A well defined target is always a prerequisite for the much needed focus. Especially, when you have to coalesce a disparate bunch into a winning team. Till the Mission 272+, and its spectacular success, the BJP did not describe the elections it fought as "missions", even if it fought some of them in that mode. The Vidhan Sabha polls for Haryana and Maharashtra, that followed the Lok Sabha polls too, were thus named. Hence, by the time Assembly polls for Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand were due, calling them yet another mission by the BJP had already acquired an element of predictability. There was a bit of palpable exaggeration though about the "mission" in J&K. 44+ seemed a distant proposition initially, even to the most die-hard optimist within the Parivar. As the campaigning progressed, a few looked eager to believe in it, even at the risk of sounding somewhat cocky.
Comparisons with Haryana and Maharashtra are in order. The tasks in these two states didn't look so far fetched when the respective 'missions' were announced there. This was despite an adverse history of earlier contests posing a big question mark on the viability of these "missions". Primarily, because the pre-poll surveys in those states gave the BJP a reasonable chance to make a success of these 'missions'. There was a similar possibility this time about Jharkhand too. But the J&K polls had a different air about them. Different, because of a plethora of reasons.
One, because J&K is more heterogeneous than all the states of India. Its three regions - Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh - differ in terrain, climate, language, religion, ethnicity, lifestyle, attitude and narrative so much that they are an antithesis of the very criteria that went into the formation of states in the Union of India. This has, historically, impacted the politics of each of these regions, often playing out in conflict vis-a-vis the Valley that always seeks to dominate. In such a gridlock of interests, getting a majority by crossing the mark of 44, for any party not just the BJP, is just too unlikely.
Two, because of violent secessionism, fomented and fuelled by Islamist jihad, aided and abetted by Pakistan. This disruption, carrying on for the last 25 years, has led to boycotts or low and erratic turnout of voters in the Valley, often impacting normal politics in the Valley, and election results even more so, given that the Valley is the largest contributing region to the J&K Assembly.
Three, because of the emergence of the BJP. The last Lok Sabha polls, just as in the rest of India, threw up the BJP as the single largest party in J&K as well. Not only in terms of votes polled (11.56 lakh) but also ahead of the principal Valley parties, NC and PDP, even if put together. BJP also swept all the three non-Valley seats as it had never done before. BJP's resurgence spearheaded by Narendra Modi, evident during the Lok Sabha polls, showed no signs of abating during the subsequent Assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra. The impact of the imminent rise of BJP as a dominant player in J&K had to be factored by all concerned.
Four, and perhaps the most crucial, was about the BJP beginning to, seriously and conspicuously, fancy its chances in the Valley without which the Mission 44+ would have, in any case, been an impossibility. To make this fourth factor a potent one, the BJP needed an elaborate logic to sell it internally within the Parivar. This is where a lot of time, effort and ingenuity were invested. In the process, some untested and unverified hypotheses were thrown up as facts, and/or exaggerated as factors.
One of them is part of a familiar argument, repeatedly tossed at separatists, to question their claims of being a movement representing a cross-section of Muslims. The crux of it was that the Kashmiri Muslims were not a monolith and that there were various cleavages, such as Shia versus Sunni, Saiyed versus Sheikh, Gujjars/Bakarwals versus urbane/elite. Nothing wrong with it. To use it as an argument in a TV studio, to score debating points, is perhaps kosher. But to make a leap of faith and turn it into an electoral "opportunity" perhaps wasn't. Those who have been seriously tracking Muslim politics and observing their voting behaviour would know better. And when you're operating in a zone of serious attrition like Kashmir, it gets even trickier. But such a dubious stratagem was at the core of drawing large segments of Muslim voters into the BJP. Forget Shia pockets like Zadibal and Budgam, even the overwhelmingly Shia Kargil turned its back on the BJP. As it turned out, the party seemed an eager and willing victim of its own propaganda.
But, this was just one. Another one was relying on the separatists' call for boycott. It is a fact that the separatists oppose elections in the state, dubbing them as an "irrelevant" exercise till such time as their "political" grievances are addressed. Over the past two decades, a large section in the Valley, often out of fear but many out of conviction too, pay heed to the separatists' call and stay home on polling day. Thus, the separatists try to showcase to the world their relevance and clout in the Valley. But those who understand Kashmir also know that the secessionists keep a hawk's eye on the politics and the political processes of the state. They wield control over elected political offices through such proxies who do their bidding as the so-called mainstream politicians. Separatists are not so naive as to let go of their leverage in the political power structure, and that too to the BJP, just to pull off a successful boycott. And that is what happened when almost twice as many voted in the Valley compared to the Lok Sabha. But the BJP being the BJP, was smug right through about the boycott being a big opportunity. And, this is still not all.
The third dimension of the "strategy" was to peddle ambiguity about its stand on Article 370. Now, here is a party that since its inception, has used this issue as the very core of its being. The founder president of the Jana Sangh, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, was killed in detention, when jailed in Kashmir protesting against this provision, in 1953. Ever since, every manifesto of the BJP commits itself to repealing Article 370, including the last one for the April-May polls to the Lok Sabha. You know what, the smart ones in the BJP recommended not to have a manifesto this time. They wanted to kill two birds with one stone. By not doing the manifesto, they spared themselves the ignominy of omitting Article 370. And by doing a "Vision Document" instead that had nothing on Article 370, they thought they could convince the Muslims of the Valley about their 'reasonableness' on the issue. And guess what, they actually killed both the birds. The two they had in both their hands, for the one in the bush. Nice and proper!
Almost one lakh votes were lost in Jammu and Ladakh compared to the Lok Sabha polls. That accounts for almost 10 per cent of the votes polled by the BJP in these two regions in the Lok Sabha polls. In Ladakh, which BJP represents in the Lok Sabha, on the promise of delivering the UT status, BJP not only lost all, it was not even in the reckoning in three out of the four seats there. In the Jammu region, the BJP came third in Udhampur, the second largest town of the region, and lost two seats to, of all the parties, the NC. It had won all these three segments in the Lok Sabha polls. Besides the 25 seats won by the BJP, it came second only in 7. Of these 5 were in Jammu region and one each in the Valley and Ladakh. In this Mission 44+, the BJP was actually in serious contest (top two positions), only in 32 seats. And, for all the bending over backwards for the Muslim vote in the Valley, it earned a grand total of a little over 50,000 votes and lost its deposit in 33 out of the 34 seats it contested there. For every single vote gained in the Valley, the BJP lost two in Jammu/Ladakh. While the votes gained in the Valley were not good enough to save the deposits, the votes lost in Jammu/Ladakh cost the BJP several winnable seats.
And, now where did the KPs' vote go? Consider the following:
1. It is 25 years since the KPs, over four lakh, were chased out of Kashmir. They have little knowledge or interest in the constituencies they have been away from for so long.
2. Ever since their exodus, the electoral rolls were revised several times and KPs' names were routinely deleted, mutilated, jumbled with wrong addresses, with errors about gender, age, surnames and relationships. Many do not know, or care, if they are even enrolled because in none of the constituencies did they ever matter numerically to alter the outcome. Also, they have other pressing issues to attend to when uprooted and living in exile.
3. Only in one constituency, Habba Kadal, have they lived in a large enough number to make some impact. Yet, the Jana Sangh/BJP has never won this seat in the past. The voter list there had 16,000 KPs. Besides the reasons mentioned in points no. 1 and 2, the KPs in exile are spread all over India and indeed abroad as well. But to vote, they are required to come to a place in Delhi or Jammu. Otherwise, they are expected to go through a cumbersome and time consuming documentation process to seek a postal ballot. Once that is delivered to them by post and on time, if it really is, then they have to mark it send it back by registered post.
4. But the biggest factor of them all was that the state bureaucracy, manning the state's Election Commission, was most reluctant to let the exiled Hindus vote in any substantial number. KPs' applications were either rejected or kept pending and delayed and thus made redundant. While all this was underway, Valley politicians were whipping up a scare to engineer a backlash, exaggerating that the KPs were being mobilised by the BJP to upstage the Muslim dominance of the Valley.
5. Finally, most KP voters, no matter where, how outnumbered, impoverished or disempowered, have been encouraged and persuaded by the BJP itself all these decades to register as voters in places of their exile, locally. And the BJP knows that the KPs have been not only overwhelmingly voting for them but also campaigning actively. The clean sweep by the BJP in Jammu city, incidentally, reflects that.
So when the party president himself alludes to the entire KP community letting down the BJP, it comes across as a cut most unkind.