India’s only Muslim majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, is going to the polls to choose a new state government. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party is making a bold bid for power in a region where it never had a significant presence and where anti-India sentiment runs high.
Despite boycott calls by Muslim separatists and chilly weather, voters stood in long lines in Jammu and Kashmir state to cast ballots for 15 seats. Tuesday’s voting was the first phase in the five stage election being held in the troubled region.
Most attention is focused on how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a marginal player in the state so far, will fare. It is contesting 70 out of 87 seats and has termed its election campaign, “Mission 44 plus”.
The BJP’s hopes of swinging a victory have been raised by its landslide national win in May and by the impressive victories it notched up in two states last month.
But its bid to rule the Himalayan state has taken many aback. The troubled region is dominated by Muslims, many of whom regard the Hindu nationalist party as anti-Muslim and view it with deep suspicion. Although a violent Muslim separatist insurgency has cooled, anti-India sentiment is high in Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
Still, BJP spokesman, Sidharth Nath Singh, is optimistic about his party’s performance in the state. His party is pinning its hopes on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“They want development. And I think today Narendra Modi stands as an icon for development and that gives us a lot of hope when we look at the youngsters of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Singh.
BJP candidates, nearly half of whom are Muslim, are trying to sway voters with talk of expressways, of jobs and and of transforming Kashmir into an international tourist hub.
The party is mostly banking on a good performance in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and Buddhist dominated Ladakh region to shore up its numbers. But it will need to wrest some support in the Kashmir valley to become a credible political player.
Political analyst Satish Misra at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi says the BJP hopes that disenchantment with the two regional parties and the Congress Party, which dominate local politics, will work to its advantage.
“In Jammu and Kashmir there have been coalition governments which have disappointed people terribly you know. No government in the last 10 years has been able to deliver. There is a serious gap between governance and promises,” stated Misra.
The disillusionment deepened after devastating floods wracked Kashmir in September and the state government was criticized for doing little to help people.
“For what purpose we vote? They are not providing us jobs," explained Sahit Amin, who works at a hotel in the tourist hub of Pahalgam. "The conditions of roads are so poor that we are unable to provide facility to tourists. I don’t understand what does the vote mean to me. ”
A recent opinion poll in the state said the BJP could emerge as the biggest party in the state, but fall short of the majority mark. The polls will conclude on December 20th and votes will be counted on December 23rd.