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In Anantnag seat, BJP, though not in fray, is bent on defeating Muftis, Abdullahs

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In Anantnag seat, BJP, though not in fray, is bent on defeating Muftis, Abdullahs

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Supporters listen to People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti, who is fighting Lok Sabha elections from Anantnag-Rajouri constituency addressed a gathering during a roadshow in Kokernag area of south Kashmir as part of her election campaign on April 21, 2024.

Supporters listen to People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti, who is fighting Lok Sabha elections from Anantnag-Rajouri constituency addressed a gathering during a roadshow in Kokernag area of south Kashmir as part of her election campaign on April 21, 2024.
| Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

A lot is at stake for former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti and the BJP, which is not contesting elections formally, in the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat, where polls will be held on May 25. For Ms. Mufti, the upcoming Assembly poll prospects solely depend on the performance in this seat, while the BJP is backing newly formed parties with the intention to blow the bugle of its arrival in the Kashmir Valley, for the first time since 1947.

All the key political parties among 20 contestants, which include the PDP, the National Conference (NC), the J&K Apni Party (JKAP) and the Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP), have been canvassing across one of the most geographically arduous constituency, with the Rajouri-Poonch belt on one side of the mighty mountain ranges of the Pir Panjal and Anantnag-Kulgam-Shopian belt on the other. It took the Mughal emperors of 16th and 17th Century weeks to cover the distance from the plains of Rajouri and Poonch to south Kashmir’s Shopian, because of the treacherous terrain.

It was the Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission that stitched together geographically and demographically two distinct regions as one Lok Sabha seat in 2022. It recast the whole constituency, with 7,35,551 voters from Rajouri and Poonch, mainly Gujjar, Bakerwal, Pahari, being added to the constituency that once was dominated by Kashmiri-speaking population. The BJP is banking on Paharis, a mixed community of Hindus and Muslims, which was granted Schedule Tribe status, to ensure that a BJP-backed candidate wins the elections.

In fact, the Election Commission’s move to defer elections here from May 7 to May 25 due to weather conditions and bad road conditions earlier has allowed the BJP to formally join the election campaign, with senior leaders camping in Rajouri and Poonch. BJP national general secretary Tarun Chugh, along with BJP State president Ravinder Raina and general secretary and in-charge of Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat Vibodh Gupta, in a series of meetings, asked their cadre and supporters to vote for a party that has potential to defeat the parties of the Abdullahs and the Muftis. It’s Ghulam Nabi Azad’s DPAP and Altaf Bukhari’s JKAP that have emerged as anti-Mufti and anti-Abdullah political forces in the constituency.

Omar’s claim

“It was a plot to delay elections. The reason was that the Union Home Minister did not want to visit Jammu and Kashmir before the Srinagar elections because it would have affected the prospects of those with the cricket bat symbol. The Anantnag elections were kept in the sixth phase so that the Home Minister could meet officials here and damage the prospects of NC candidate Mian Altaf,” NC vice-president Omar Abdullah claimed. 

The other smaller parties have also joined hands to amplify the anti-Abdullah and anti-Mufti front. “We had made a commitment to the BJP to vote for the party after Schedule Tribe [ST] status was granted to our community. Recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah suggested that we [Paharis] should vote for any party other than the three families [Abdullahs, Muftis and Gandhis]. We have decided to vote for JKAP candidate Zafar Manhas, who is a Pahari, and fought for preservation of Pahari culture,” said Raja Ajaz Ali, a Pahari leader and supporter of the J&K Peoples Conference (JKPC).

The BJP intends to exploit the demographic edge of tribals in the constituency to ensure the PDP and the NC lose. However, Ms. Mufti and her daughter Iltija Mufti have matched the BJP’s campaign in Rajouri and Poonch. They managed to pull tribals to their poll rallies. “Our party is the only party that talks about the unity of Pahari and Gujjars. We need a strong voice in the Parliament to raise all the issues facing Paharis and Gujjars,” Ms. Mufti said.

The NC, which is a member of the INDIA bloc, has put its best foot forward. NC candidate Mian Altaf Lavri is a Gujjar cleric and belongs to a family of caretakers of a shrine in central Kashmir’s Kangan area, which has been a religious centre for the Gujjar community for centuries now. The shrine sees thousands of Gujjars from across Jammu and Kashmir visiting it on its annual ‘urs’. Mr. Larvi has a strong hold within his community and never lost the Kangan Assembly elections for the past two decades.

The epic showdown will see former allies NC and PDP, once members of the People Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), take on each other and the BJP-backed candidates ready to spoil their plans. Fractured on the tribal lines, it remains to be seen whether 18.30 lakh voters will vote on May 25 on the lines of regional, tribal or Muslim identity or according to their fault lines. 

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