Elections in Jammu and Kashmir: Modi and the BJP’s Latest Battleground

Voters queue in preparation for casting their ballots in the ongoing Assembly Elections in the Indian state of Ammu and Kashmir (bbc.co.uk) Just like the recent general election in India, the ongoing State Assembly election in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which is being held in five phases between November 25 and December 20, will be contested mostly on the issues of economic development, good governance, and prosperity. Other attention-grabbing issues in J&K also coincide with national issues like corruption and creating employment for youth, while anti-incumbency and frustration against dynastic rule could also play a significant role. In keeping with these national parallels, the J&K elections also represent a referendum on newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—and the extent to which Indian voters still sympathize with their message.

Jammu and Kashmir has a long history of political traditionalism. For many years, the state’s politics have been dominated by the family of Sheikh Abdullah, the founder of the Kashmir Muslim Conference, now known as Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC). The Abdullah family has ruled the state of J&K for decades. Sheikh Abdullah became the state’s prime minister in 1948 and his grandson, Omar Abdullah, is the current chief minister.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is the other dominant politician and founder of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He was a member of Indian National Congress Party (INC) and J&K’s chief minister between 2002 and 2005. His daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, now leads his party.

The INC, a part of the current coalition government along with NC, also ruled J&K between 1964 and 1975, and again between 2005 and2008. In the past, the INC has also participated in the PDP’s coalition government.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Assembly Elections are scheduled to last a full month, spanning November and December, and both national and regional parties are preparing for the polls. Prime Minister Modi’s BJP party is campaigning on a platform of anti-corruption and economic development to win a majority of the 87 seats that comprise the state’s legislative assembly. The BJP plans to enter the contest to address the same issues as they did during this year’s national elections— development and governance. A win for the BJP in J&K, though a historical first, would only continue the inertia that has propelled the party to political dominance this year.

The BJP began its national winning streak in December 2013 with a massive victory in the Gujarat state election, under the leadership of Narendra Modi. This was followed by BJP wins in three state assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, and finally an absolute majority in the national election to form a government in New Delhi. The BJP has continued its electoral success even after the general election, however. Most recently, the party successfully won two other states, Haryana and Maharashtra, largely by promising economic development, good governance, and the elimination of corruption.

The BJP plans to alter its tactics little, deploying the same political agenda for the J&K election. It remains an open question, however, whether the BJP will be able to replicate its past wins in the only state in India with a majority Muslim population. The BJP is widely considered an anti-Muslim party; its leader, Prime Minister Modi, is known as a Hindu nationalist. Modi has also been criticized for allegedly failing to protect Muslim citizens during the 2002 Gujarat riots, which took place under his leadership as chief minister and claimed the lives of between 800 and 2,000 Muslims.

A win would also be a significantly tougher feat in Jammu and Kashmir than it has been in other states, but it would not be unprecedented. The party currently holds just 11 seats in the J&K state assembly, and it will need at least 44 out of the total 87 to form a majority government. This target seems relatively high, but Modi’s strategic vision and rhetorical skill at reaching voters’ hearts have proved his opponents and political pundits grossly wrong before. The BJP won three out of six parliament seats in J&K in the recent general election, with the other three going to the PDP. This is a clear indication of both the BJP’s increasing popularity and the declining reputation of the ruling coalition comprised of the NC and INC. The BJP is also preparing to form a sizable coalition with other regional parties to accomplish its mission of a BJP-led J&K government.

In this sense, the BJP may also benefit from the weaknesses of its opposition. The Congress Party, which headed the previous coalition national government prior to the 2014 general election, is desperately in need of new ideas and leadership in order to grab voters’ attention, energize party workers,and attract new allies for future coalitions. But as contenders in the J&K election, Congress leadership has continued a pattern of complacency by sticking with its primeval strategies of depicting Modi and the BJP as communal and divisive forces. Indian citizens, especially young voters, have no interest in those issues. They want to hear about development, jobs, successful foreign policy, and India as a rising nation.

Beyond promising economic development and good governance, the BJP stands to achieve several goals if it emerges victorious in the J&K election. On the international level, successfully forming a government in J&K will prove to the world that Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists, who portray that people of Kashmir as oppressed and hungry for separation from India, are wrong. To cement that message and deflect criticism of Modi for his conduct during the Gujarat riots, some BJP leaders are insisting on selecting a Hindu chief minister in J&K to dispel the myth that Indian Muslims—both in J & K and nationwide—are unsafe with the BJP as the country’s ruling party.

On the national level, a J&K win for the BJP will further indicate the political confidence the people of India have placed in the party this year both federally and locally. It will also represent a win for the country as a whole, endorsing the message of economic development, good governance, anti-corruption, and political inclusion at a time when India’s stature on the global stage is growing and—as a result—coming under greater international scrutiny. If the BJP scores another state assembly when votes are tallied on December 23, it will mark the capstone to a very good year for India indeed.