Lok Sabha 2024: J&K’s Anantnag seat slips into political drama ahead of polls

The Anantnag-Rajouri constituency is set for a triangular contest in a seat layered with complex voter demography, and issues related to J&K’s special status

April 29, 2024 07:10 pm | Updated 09:52 pm IST - SRINAGAR

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti during an election rally for Lok Sabha polls, in Anantnag, on April 29, 2024.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti during an election rally for Lok Sabha polls, in Anantnag, on April 29, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

The upcoming election of the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency on May 7 is the most-watched election in Jammu and Kashmir for its intrigues, suspense, and drama. Fast slipping into a complex Shakespearian political drama, the National Conference (NC) candidate Mian Altaf, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Mehbooba Mufti, and J&K Apni Party candidate Zaffar Manhas — who is likely to get support from the absent political parties like Bharatiya Janata Party and J&K Peoples Conference — is set for a triangular contest in a seat layered with complex voter demography, comprising Kashmiri speaking-voters, Gujjars, Bakerwals, and Paharis.

So far, the poll narrative of the regional parties, the NC and the PDP, has revolved around the BJP, a party not contesting from the seat so far. Both the PDP and the NC accused the BJP of “assault on Kashmiri identity, special status, and natural resources”. However, the BJP is joining multiple political forces to seek postponement of elections in Anantnag, citing concerns over weather and voter accessibility due to the current spell of rainfall. It keeps the door ajar for the BJP and the party’s re-entry cannot be ruled out in case the Election Commission of India (ECI) heeds the request.

In separate representations made to the ECI, BJP’s Ravinder Raina, J&K Peoples Conference’s Imran Reza Ansari, J&K Apni Party’s Syed Mohammad Altaf Bukhari, J&K Nationalist People’s Front, independent candidates like Mohammad Saleem Paray, Ali Mohammad Wani and Arsheed Ali Lone seeks deferment of election.

In fact, the day nominations for the seat were closed, the BJP’s absence was intriguing for all. The Anantnag-Rajouri constituency was the only seat it believed as a gateway into the once-no-go area of the Kashmir valley. The saffron party indeed focussed sharply and invested politically in several tribes of the Rajouri-Poonch region of the Pir Panjal Valley in the past five years to reap electoral gains, especially after it scrapped special status of J&K in 2019.

From granting Schedule Tribe (ST) status to well-to-do Paharis in the face of protests by backward Gujjars and Bakerwals to sending first ever Gujjar leader Ghulam Ali Khatana to Rajya Sabha, the saffron party attracted big tribal leaders like Mushtaq Bukhari, Syed Muhammad Rafiq Shah, and Mohd. Ayub Pahalwan into the party fold. The aim apparently was to win the elections. Several BJP leaders from the Kashmir valley, in a joint letter to the party high command in Delhi, pressed for fielding candidates from the Kashmir valley’s three seats. However, senior BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah silenced the demand, saying “the party is into winning the hearts of the people in Kashmir before the lotus will bloom there”.

In fact, the BJP faced a political dilemma. There was a fear of polarisation and consolidation of Muslim votes. Also, the BJP’s stated political goal in Kashmir remains to see a non-Abdullah and non-Mufti Member Parliament, especially from Anantnag. It can only be achieved by supporting other political players in Kashmir.

The constituency has also pitted former allies of the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), the NC, and the PDP, and the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc against each other. The Gupkar alliance, formed on August 4, 2019, would pledge to fight jointly for the restoration of the pre-August 5, 2019 position of J&K, seeking restoration of special status. However, the hardening position of the NC to retain the Anantnag seat pushed the PDP away from any electoral alliance within the INDIA bloc.

For Ms. Mufti, Anantnag is the hometown of the Muftis and the party, as most of her leaders come from south Kashmir. The NC, on the other hand, see time opportune to reclaim south Kashmir from the PDP, which saw an exodus of leaders after 2019. Ms. Mufti’s image and political future is at stake here. The NC’s poll prospects for upcoming Assembly polls also hinge on the seat.

Demography dynamic

The Anantnag-Rajouri is also a newly carved out Parliament seat in J&K. In 2022, the J&K Delimitation Commission stitched together geographically disjointed regions of Rajouri and Poonch of the Pir Panjal valley and Anantnag-Shopian-Kulgam of the Kashmir valley. It recast the voter demographics.

In 2019, Anantnag had around 14 lakh voters, with 50% Kashmiri-speaking voters and 50 percent tribals, including Paharis and Gujjars. The delimitation exercise added 7.35 lakh voters from the Pir Panjal and gave an edge to tribals over Kashmiri-speaking voters. A majority of Gujjar, Bakerwal, and Pahari votes are from the Rajouri-Poonch belt. A small section of Kashmiri Pandits and Pahari Hindu is also present here. The constituency now has seven Assembly segments of Rajouri and Poonch, with 7.35 lakh voters, and 11 Assembly segments of Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama, and Anantnag, with 10.94 lakh voters.

The voter demographics forced the NC to field Mr. Altaf, a popular and well-respected Gujjar leader and spiritual guru, from central Kashmir’s Kangan area in Anantnag. Ms. Mufti too is reaching out to tribals and banks on the goodwill generated for her stand over the rape-and-murder of a Gujjar girl in 2018 and her street protests against eviction of Gujjars and Bakerwals from forest land after 2019. J&K Apni Party candidate Manhas is a Pahari and banks on the support from the BJP and allies like the J&K Peoples Conference to shore up his numbers. Only a candidate with trans-regional appeal can win the seat.

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