A political contest emerges in Jammu and Kashmir’s Udhampur, geographically one of the largest parliamentary constituencies

The Congress’ Lal Singh Choudhary, a two-time MP from Udhampur, is standing against the BJP’s Jitendra Singh, who is with the PMO and won in the previous two Lok Sabha elections with landslide margins

Updated - April 17, 2024 06:54 pm IST

Published - April 07, 2024 06:15 pm IST - Kathua

Kanta Andotra, Congress candidate Choudhary Lal Singh’s wife, campaigns in Kathua, Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir.

Kanta Andotra, Congress candidate Choudhary Lal Singh’s wife, campaigns in Kathua, Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir. | Photo Credit: Vijaita Singh

Kanta Andotra knows she has a tough task cut out for her. The former MLA is canvassing for votes from village to village on behalf of her husband, Lal Singh Choudhary, a two-time MP from Udhampur.

Mr. Choudhary, a Congress party candidate, has been fielded against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Jitendra Singh, who won in the previous two Lok Sabha elections with a landslide margin.

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During the 2014 General Election, Mr. Choudhary, who had briefly joined the BJP and was a Minister in the then BJP-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government, had helped Mr. Singh in his election campaign. The so far one-sided contest has turned interesting with the entry of Mr. Chowdhary. 

Ms. Andotra begins her speech by invoking Mata Vaishno Devi, the revered deity. “Do you want a candidate to whom you can reach through a call even in the dead of the night or someone who never steps foot in the area? Do you want a local representative or an outsider? Our issues are raasta and naali [road and drainage], there are no jobs for the youth, pension for widows and Anganwadi workers have stopped,” Ms. Andotra says to a group of men and women at Kootah in Kathua district, assembled in the precincts adjacent to a temple.

Udhampur goes to vote on April 19 and, geographically, is one of the largest parliamentary constituencies in the country. It comprises Doda, Ramban, Kathua, Kishtwar and Udhampur districts, and has a 60% Hindu and 40% Muslim population.

Some locals said that Mr. Singh was an “absent MP.” Others said that his job in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) keeps him busy. 

Asha Devi alias Baby, a BJP worker, has been campaigning for Mr. Singh in villages in Kathua and Hiranagar, which share a boundary with Pakistan. “How can you expect a person who holds such a key position in the PMO to be available here all the time? While being in Delhi, he ensures that he gets good infrastructure projects for us. Modi-ji is an incarnation of God, he made the Ram Mandir,” Ms. Baby said.

BJP supporters campaign for Jitendra Singh, the party’s candidate for the Udhampur seat.

BJP supporters campaign for Jitendra Singh, the party’s candidate for the Udhampur seat. | Photo Credit: Vijaita Singh

“The Ram Mandir was made with our money, all of us contributed. But there is no need to seek votes in Ram’s name. Our issue is unemployment, young men do not have jobs. Another big issue is alcohol and drugs. Every village here has alcohol problems, no one talks about it,” Romesh Chandra, a former head of Swal village, said.

“Modi-ji has done a lot for women. He gave us cylinder and a pucca house,” Anju Bala from Gujjar Chak village said. A tempo adorned with the BJP’s flags plays a song in Hindi in the background: “Jo Ram ko laaye hain, hum unko layenge [those who brought Ram home, we will bring them to power].” 

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are all set to campaign for Mr. Singh this week. 

“We are all very excited to see Yogi-ji. I have a network of over 100 women and all of us will be going to see his rally,” Rekha Sharma, a self-help group member, said. 

“If Mr. Singh was winning smoothly, what was the need for Yogi-ji and Modi-ji to campaign here?” a Congress worker asked.

Mr. Choudhary, who was the Minister for Forest, Environment, Ecology in the BJP-PDP government in 2018, attended a rally in support of the accused who allegedly raped and killed an eight-year-old girl belonging to the Bakarwal community, a nomadic Muslim tribe. 

Nirdosh Thakur, a Congress worker, said it was a “miscommunication”. “Over two lakh people were out on the road against police action. It was said that they had picked up innocent people and framed them. Chaudhary saab was sent by the party to pacify the crowd. All he demanded was a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) enquiry in the case,” Mr. Thakur said. The trial of the case was shifted out of J&K, and in 2019, a court in Pathankot, Punjab convicted seven of the eight accused persons. 

After Mr. Choudhary quit the BJP to protest the government’s decision to revoke Article 370 in J&K, the CBI registered a case of land grab against an educational trust run by his family. In 2019, he floated his own party and finished fourth in the Lok Sabha election by securing only 20,000 votes. He was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in November 2023 in a money laundering case. 

“At that time, he did not have the support of the Congress party. It was a new party and we did not have enough resources. Now, we have the organisational backing,” Ms. Andotra said. 

The Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) of former Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad has also fielded a candidate, G.M Saroori, in Udhampur. “He never criticises the BJP. We will not vote for him, he is the B-team of the BJP. The BJP gave tribal reservation to pahadis in J&K. They snatched our rights,” Zakir Hussain, a Gujjar from Kootah, said. 

Last year, the Parliament enacted a legislation to include the Pahari Ethnic Group in the Scheduled Tribes list of the Union Territory amid stiff opposition from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community. 

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