India election 2024: Why isn’t Modi’s BJP fielding candidates in Kashmir?

The absence of the prime minister’s party from the electoral fray in the Muslim-majority region is seen as a sign of its unpopularity.

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – More than a month into India’s giant seven-phase national election, the Kashmir Valley will finally begin to cast its votes in one constituency, on May 13. The Indian-administered region will vote for two other constituencies on May 20 and May 25.

But missing from the fray is India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its aggressive electoral ambitions, win-at-all-costs approach and aspirations of breaking ground in parts of the country where it has traditionally not had much success.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has not fielded candidates in any of the three seats in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

Experts and rivals argue the Hindu majoritarian party wants to avoid an outcome that may challenge its claims of bringing development and peace to the Himalayan region, which has seen decades of armed rebellion against Indian rule.

The BJP denies that it has anything to hide and insists the region has changed for the better since Modi’s government in 2019 scrapped Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had granted a measure of autonomy to Indian-administered Kashmir. New Delhi also split the region into two federally-governed territories: Jammu and Kashmir as well as Ladakh.

Some analysts view the 2024 elections in Kashmir as a referendum on those 2019 moves, which the BJP claimed had widespread support in the disputed region. So why did the party not field candidates in the Kashmir valley?

Why is the BJP skipping elections in Kashmir?

Al Jazeera spoke to more than a dozen residents and experts in the Kashmir Valley to try to answer this question. One key thread emerged: Everyday Kashmiris are still angry with with BJP’s decision to scrap the region’s special status and order a subsequent security crackdown that saw thousands of people arrested.

The local administration run from New Delhi has also clamped down on free speech, arresting journalists and shutting down news sites critical of the federal government. High unemployment, power shortages and a lack of basic infrastructure plague the region, and many Kashmiris say these issues remain unaddressed.

While some of the people Al Jazeera spoke with said this anger would be reflected in Kashmir’s election results, others revealed they would not bother to vote at all. “I will abstain from voting as none of the issues facing people have been addressed,” 33-year-old Saqib, a resident of Baramulla in northern Kashmir, told Al Jazeera.

“I have a PhD in social sciences but earn a meagre $200 monthly from a private teaching job. What do I vote for when there is little hope?” Saqib, who did not want his full name disclosed for fear of retribution, said.

“If anyone is excited about this election exercise, it is the loyal voter base of different political parties and their workers,” he said, referring to the pro-Indian Kashmir-based parties such as the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The NC and the PDP have also been targets of crackdowns by the Modi government.

Syed Aga Ruhulla, the NC candidate from Srinagar, told Al Jazeera that the election was an opportunity for Kashmiri voters “to express their dissent”.

“They have to show they don’t accept it,” he said, referring to the anger against the unilateral decision to revoke Article 370.

He said people feel disfranchised because the state legislature has been suspended since 2019, so Kashmiris have no local government and, therefore, little say in the governance of this ecologically sensitive region.

Kashmiris fear their land and culture are under attack. Article 370 had barred outsiders from buying land and settling in Kashmir but with that safeguard gone, many fear the BJP might try to engineer a demographic shift in the region.

The “BJP knows that if it contests in Kashmir, the election will become a referendum of sorts on Article 370, and it will land the party in an embarrassing position”, Muhammad, a political analyst based in Kashmir who did not want his full name used, told Al Jazeera.

Last month, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah said during an election rally in Jammu that the BJP wants to win the hearts of the people and is in no rush “to see the lotus [its party symbol] bloom in the [Kashmir] Valley”.

The BJP has not won any of the three Kashmir seats – Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag-Rajouri – since it started running in 1996. Srinagar votes on May 13, Baramulla on May 20, and Anantnag-Rajouri on May 25.

Has the BJP given up on Kashmir?

Until recently, it looked like the BJP would look to compete in Kashmir. Just two months ago, days before the national election was announced, Modi visited Srinagar, the region’s biggest city, for the first time since the 2019 scrapping of Article 370.

“I am working hard to win your hearts, and my attempt to keep winning your hearts will continue,” Modi said.

The BJP government passed a law in parliament that offers affirmative action in jobs to a mountain-dwelling tribe, in a move that sparked tensions in the region and led to accusations that Modi and his team were trying to polarise Kashmiri society to win the loyalty of select communities.

The party, should, in theory, also have been a beneficiary of gerrymandering in some constituencies: Parts of two districts from the Hindu-majority Jammu region were added to the Anantnag constituency.

So, what changed?

Analysts such as Muhammad argue that the BJP realised it does not stand a chance in the election, especially if local parties such as the NC and PDP were able to rally their support base.

However, Ashok Kaul, a senior BJP leader in the region, defended the move to not contest the election in Kashmir.

[The] “BJP already contested in two seats [from the Jammu region]”, Kaul said.

He also said that federal rule over Kashmir, under Modi, had transformed the region for the better.

“There are no shutdowns now, children attend school regularly and no one issues protest calendars. The young men no longer throw stones. Our work speaks for itself.”

Kaul was referring to the eruption of street protests in the 2010s when Kashmiri youth pelted security forces with stones in response to civilian killings. Hundreds of Kashmiris were blinded when the security forces responded with pellet guns to suppress the protests.

The BJP has emerged as a dominant player in the Jammu region in the past decade as Jammu and Kashmir’s politics have been polarised along religious and regional lines.

Voting has already taken place for the two seats in the Hindu-majority Jammu region [Jammu and Udhampur], both of which the BJP won in 2014 and 2019.

What other parties are in the fray?

The NC, which has been the ruling party for most of the time since the region’s accession into India, and the PDP are the main players in the Kashmir Valley, while the Indian National Congress and the BJP enjoy influence in Jammu.

The NC and the PDP are part of the Congress-led opposition INDIA bloc, which is challenging the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) federally. However, both these regional constituents of the INDIA coalition are competing against each other in Kashmir.

The Apni Party and the People’s Conference, two other parties running in Kashmir, have faced accusations from critics that they are proxies for the BJP – an allegation they deny.

What’s changed for Kashmir since 2019?

One of the main claims made by the BJP regarding the abrogation of Article 370 was that it would eradicate “terrorism” and improve the region’s security situation. However, attacks have continued in the region.

While the Kashmir Valley, historically a hotbed of rebellion, has experienced a decline in attacks, the rebels have gradually shifted their base to peripheral districts, such as Rajouri and Poonch in the Jammu region. These districts have witnessed a surge in rebel attacks since 2021.

Overall, however, the region has seen a significant reduction in casualties among civilians and security forces.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number of security force casualties has declined over the past five years from 80 in 2019 to 33 in 2023. Likewise, civilian deaths have declined from 44 in 2019 to 12 in 2023.

But residents in Indian-administered Kashmir say their development-related woes continue. For the past several weeks, Kashmir has seen extended hours of electrical outages, making it the worst power crisis in years.

Kashmir’s unemployment rate stands at 18.5 percent, according to official figures, against the national average of 7.6 percent. Kashmiris are mostly reliant on government jobs, which have shrunk since the 2019 changes and are now also open to outsiders.

A proposed railway line has triggered protests from apple farmers in the Shopian district, who fear that it would result in the destruction of apple orchards and rob the local people of their livelihoods in a region where horticulture is the mainstay of the economy.

“We need development that also thinks about the welfare of locals and is done in consultation with the Indigenous people,” said Shabiya Rashid, a scholar at a local university.

Why are elections for the state legislature not being held?

Kashmir has been without a democratically elected government since 2019, and bureaucrats sent by New Delhi run the region of 12 million people.

“Who do we approach for the local issues? There is no one,” Ubaid Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

Last year, the Supreme Court ordered the government to conduct elections for the state assembly by September this year.

“Any assembly election cannot be delayed for more than six months, but there have been no elections for the last six years. This is a violation of the constitution and law, indicating that the democracy the state boasts of does not extend to Kashmir,” NC leader Ruhulla said.

MW Malla, a New Delhi-based Kashmiri researcher, pointed out that the central government conducted elections even at the peak of the rebellion in Kashmir in the 1990s, when separatists called for a boycott.

Still, even without an elected regional administration, many Kashmiris like Mushkoor Ahmad, a Srinagar resident, view the national election with hope.

“It is an important election for our collective identity,” he said. “I just hope that when the results are out on June 4, it signals an end to our misery.”

Source: Al Jazeera