It will be an uphill task for BJP to repeat 2014 show in J&K

Protecting State’s special status and distinct cultural identity will be a campaign issue.

An upmarket carpet shop at Srinagar’s Polo View has hanged a placard: ‘I protest any attack on Article 35A (related to J&K state subject rights)”. Such protest banners are more common than any party banner or flag in Srinagar.

The shop owner Nazeer Ahmad, 61, who always boycotted elections in the Valley since the 1990s, says he’s closely watching the developments taking place ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. “I may not vote again but I am keen to see which way the voting population tilts this time,” he says.

A constant threat to the special status of J&K and the hard-ball played with both the separatist and mainstream regional political parties during the five-year term by the BJP-led government at the Centre has consolidated Muslim votes and pushed the regional parties into tactical alliances to keep the BJP at bay.

The formal alliance between the National Conference (NC) and the Congress, wiped out in the previous elections, in Jammu region’s Udampur-Doda and Jammu-Poonch Lok Sabha seats has made the BJP journey tough to repeat the Lok Sabha election’s results, where the saffron party won both the seats.

Another regional party Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti’s decision to not field any candidate in Jammu region’s twin seats further consolidated votes in favour of Congress candidates Raman Bhalla in Jammu and Dogra Maharaja family’s Vikramaditya Singh in Udhampur.

“We are going to repeat the results of the 2014 elections. We will defeat the coalition this time too,” says BJP state spokesperson Altaf Thakur.

The BJP has put its best foot forward in Jammu to retain the seats. BJP’s MP Jitendra Singh will again contest from the Udhampur seat, where he defeated Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad by a margin of 60,976 votes in 2014.

Another BJP MP Jugal Kishore Sharma will contest from the Jammu seat, which he won by a record 2.26 lakh votes in the previous poll. Mr. Kishore’s march could be halted this time by the major vote cut in favour of rebel BJP leader and former MP Chaudhary Lal Singh, who has floated the Dogra Swabhimaan Sangathan and will contest from both the seats. He fell out with the BJP over the issue of the Kathua rape and murder case.

In Kashmir valley’s three seats of Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag, the separatists-backed boycott will remain a factor, given the poor voter turnout in the urban local bodies and panchayat elections in October 2018.

In volatile south Kashmir’s Anantnag, which saw the maximum incidents of militancy since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commader Burhan Wani in 2016, former chief minister Ms. Mufti will take on NC’s Hasnain Masoodi, a former judge and a new entrant into politics, and the BJP’s Muslim face Sofi Yousuf, also a legislator in the State’s upper house. The Congress is yet to name the candidate for the seat. It will be a litmus test for Ms. Mufti because the PDP won 11 Assembly seats out of 16 in the 2016 Assembly polls in south Kashmir.

“This Lok Sabha election is not about numbers but about a collective message that needs to be sent to the whole country that J&K stands for its special status and distinct cultural identity. The PDP defeated the BJP designs while being in the ruling alliance and will continue to oppose any tempering with our historical context,” said PDP leader Naeem Akhtar.

NC president Farooq Abdullah, a three-time MP and a three-time chief minister, may not see a formidable challenge either from PDP’s Aga Mohsin, whose party image took a major dent after its alliance with the BJP. The BJP, which won many municipal wards in the 2018 polls, has fielded its former spokesman Khalid Jehangir from Srinagar.

“This election is about protecting the special status of J&K. This time we are going to vote for the identity and integrity of J&K,” says NC leader Tanvir Sadiq.

North Kashmir’s Baramulla seat will see a triangular fight between NC-Congress, PDP and separatist-turned-mainstream leader Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference (PC).

PC has fielded former PDP leader Raja Aijaz Ali and PDP has put up former teachers association president Abdul Qayoom Wani. With the voting population set to split into four major contenders, all parties stand chances of winning the seat. NC has fielded an ‘old horse’ Muhammad Akbar Lone and the Congress is yet to decided on the candidate.

All the major players, including NC, PDP, Congress and BJP, have yet to decided on the candidates for the Ladakh seat. All eyes are on the two influential Islamia School Kargil and Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, which are pushing for a consensus candidate rather than NC, Congress and PDP fielding candidates separately.