Priortising jobs and education, the party could upset the calculations of the BJP and smaller parties
From organising iftar parties in volatile and militancy-infested Pulwama to holding membership drives in National Conference (NC) bastions of north Kashmir, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is gearing up for a significant entry into the Union Territories of J&K ahead of Assembly polls likely later this year.
The development is likely to unsettle smaller development-driven and not ideology-based parties in the Valley and upset the BJP more in the Jammu region.
Attracting the young
The AAP has, in fact, been preparing the ground for its political entry for more than a year now in the Kashmir and Jammu divisions. It plans to rope in vocal and educated youth and avoid “established leaders hijacking the party”.
“There were many MLAs and ministers interested to join us. We have decided to focus on the common man, who knows what bad conditions of roads mean, poor quality of education feels like. We don’t want vested interests to hijack the movement of the youth,” Dr. Nawab Nasir Aman, general secretary of the AAP’s J&K chapter, said.
The AAP is pushing the discourse door-to-door in central, south, and north Kashmir that the Kejriwal model is the only hopeful model for the conflict zone. Many young activists from the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have joined the AAP but the numbers are not very significant.
“We don’t know how to do politics but we know how to build hospitals and schools. We did it in New Delhi. Around 35,000 employees were regularised in Punjab by the AAP government in one day. We have over 60,000 such workers who are not getting regularised in J&K,” Mr. Aman said.
The AAP has decided to steer clear of larger political issues in Kashmir, especially the question of Article 370 and 35(A). In fact, the AAP had voted in favour of the Centre’s move to end J&K’s special constitutional position in 2019, an act that would make it harder for the party to sell its agenda in the Kashmir valley.
At a recent meeting of top AAP leaders with newly inducted workers in New Delhi, Imran Hussain, a Cabinet minister in the Kejriwal government, set out clear boundaries of discourse within which the AAP will operate in J&K. The party is limiting itself to raising the issues of education and health, advocating humanity and hardcore patriotism.
The narrative has struck a chord with many young and aspiring politicians, especially in the Jammu region. Jawaz Ahmed from the Chenab Valley’s Doda feels that the AAP is an alternative to “the unimaginative and traditional” regional parties like the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and NC, which are rooted in their age-old political stands. Ahmad, who lost his father in 1993 to the Kashmir conflict, is hopeful of the AAP’s impact in the Muslim-majority Chenab Valley too.
“My father died in the custody of security forces in November 1993. I understand the value of peace. I don’t see J&K getting Article 370 and 35(A) back in the near future. The regional parties still harp on these issues. The AAP talks about real problems like unemployment, roads etc. I joined the AAP to push for peace and dignity,” said Mr. Ahmad, who recently quit the post of PDP’s social media in-charge to join the AAP. He was among scores of J&K activists who joined the party in Delhi.
However, the Kashmir valley, a conservative region where even the Congress took decades to win seats, may prove a tough nut for the AAP. But the party can unsettle smaller parties like J&K Apni Party and J&K Peoples Conference (PC), which are unlikely to make the return to pre-August 4, 2019 status a central plank of their electoral politics and will harp on the development agenda. In fact, PC’s Sajad Lone, once spokesman of the five-member Gupkar Alliance advocating the pro-August 4 2019 position, has already quit the grouping to chart his own electoral course.
But the AAP would be more interested in replacing the Congress, a waning political force across the country, first in Kashmir. The Congress does have a vote bank in pockets like Dooru Shahabad and Kokernag in south Kashmir and Bandipora and Uri in north Kashmir.
Displacing the BJP
Unlike Kashmir, the Jammu province is seeing more resonance with the AAP and the daily public rallies are the only pointer towards the party’s growing acceptability. According to the party, more than 5,000 people enrolled in the party on April 6 alone across Jammu. “This is the storm in Jammu and Kashmir which is not going to stop now,” an AAP spokesman in Jammu said.
The Congress once held sway in the plains of the Jammu division, especially in Jammu, Kathua, Samba districts. However, since the 2014 general election, the party has witnessed a steady slide even as the BJP rose by leaps and bounds. Post-August 5, 2019, the BJP, however, is being questioned by locals on the issues of its employment policy, land laws, end of the annual shifting of capital, ‘Darbar Move’, and allowing outsiders to take away the tenders of sand mining.
The AAP has a chance to capitalise on the growing anger against the BJP’s policies in Jammu and the decline of Congress. Besides, the Jammu region has a sizable population of Sikhs, who would also prefer the AAP after its success in Punjab.
“The BJP does not allow leadership to grow,” said Balwant Singh Mankotia, former president of the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party who joined the AAP recently. There were rumors for a long that Mr. Mankotia was joining the BJP. “The AAP gives freedom of functioning without compromising with the party discipline,” he added.
Taranjit Singh Tony, 50, a District Development Council (DDC) member from Suchetgarh, is also among the three well-known faces from Jammu, besides former legislators Mr. Mankotia and Yash Pal Kundal, to boost the AAP’s poll prospects.
Wearing a big smile, Mr. Singh on April 13 oversaw one of the biggest membership drives in recent times of around 1,000 people from Kathua. Volunteers wearing the trademark Gandhi ‘topi’ and mufflers even surprised the organisers.
“People are stitching their own ‘topi’ and declare their membership. There was a time when we saw a Modi wave. Now, what we see is a Keriwal tsunami. People are impressed by Mr. Kejriwal’s initiatives for the poor and middle class in New Delhi and now unfolding in Punjab. We will replicate it here now,” Mr. Tony said.
He said the BJP’s popularity is waning in the face of its failure to fulfill promises. “The BJP has done nothing for Jammu. It brought mining and liquor mafias here. Thousands of schools were closed. A local contractor has to go through a series of verifications from police before participating in a tendering process,” Mr. Tony alleged.
He said the reading down of Article 370 was followed by anti-people measures like land and job laws. “Outsiders were allowed to be recruited in the J&K Bank. Where is the promise of reserving jobs for locals? The rosy picture painted after ending provisions of Article 370 has turned black now. Ordinary people are realising the realities,” Mr. Tony said.
Mr. Tony, who is planning to contest Assembly elections from Jammu South, said the time has come to call a spade a spade. “We are a few steps away from Sri Lanka-type crisis. We cannot just feed people with the opium of religion,” he added.
According to the APP’s data, around two lakh people have joined the party from the Jammu plains in the past month. The party plans to contest from all 90 seats in J&K. The party’s entry is likely to shake up established political formations in the troubled Union Territory.