The 200-odd-km-long Muslim-dominated belt between Jammu and Poonch along the Line of Control believes the Lok Sabha election in Jammu is a direct contest between the “face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi” and the “Congress’ hand”.
The reasons cited for their conviction are — the absence of the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference from the contest, the “clean image” of Congress candidate Raman Bhalla, who’s also the party’s State vice-president, and the complaints of the voters against the sitting MP, BJP’s Jugal Kishore Sharma.
Voter loyalty in this region traditionally swings between the Congress and the regional parties. In 2014, all three Assembly constituencies under Poonch district voted for different parties — Poonch-Haveli elected the PDP candidate, Surankote chose Congress and Mendhar opted for the NC. With both the NC and the PDP deciding to stay out of the fray in Jammu, the Congress’ decision to field Mr. Bhalla from the seat is a “double plus” for the party, feels Sabir Bitta, a teacher at the Model Higher Secondary School at Sheeshmahal in Poonch district.
“Just like you hear about cross-border shelling along the LoC in the National Capital Region, we too hear of cases like [Mohammad] Akhlaq’s lynching [in Dadri], Bulandshahr [violence] up here. Add to that the fact that our community has traditionally supported the Congress and that he [Mr. Bhalla] has immense goodwill among the people here, you have the answer to your question,” says Mr. Bitta.
According to the official 2011 Census figures, Muslims constitute 90.45% of the district’s total population of 4,76,820.
BJP flags and hoardings, bearing the photos of Mr. Modi, party president Amit Shah and State leaders, dominate the Jammu-Akhnoor Highway for a good 30 km. Congress flags on homes and shops ostensibly belonging to Muslims on one side confront BJP flags on Hindu homes on the other side in areas such as Manjakote in Rajouri district for the next 100 km on National Highway 144A. A little further on Poonch Highway, smaller BJP hoardings, similar to the ones in Jammu but mysteriously torn, hang from trees.
Mohammad Nazeer, a dhaba owner in Surankote, has just returned from a poll-related meeting at a local mosque” and asks his customers for advice. “Are you coming from Jammu? What’s the mood there?” he asks in a mix of Dogri and Punjabi. “At the meeting [at the mosque] they were asking us to vote for the Congress because our party hasn’t fielded any candidate. I feel uncomfortable about that. They talk about the greater good but to me it seems like giving my vote for nothing,” he says, choosing not to name the “party” in reference.
Residents of the twin Rajouri and Poonch districts, 70 km apart along the LoC, are targeted frequently by Pakistani forward posts located on the mountains above. They assert that events such as cross-border hostility and India’s retaliatory air strikes in Balakot are not mere electoral issues but “realities” which they are living every day.
BJP general secretary Ram Madhav’s rally in town on Saturday, according to Poonch residents’, “failed” to draw crowds and was a proof that voters would rather have better roads and more doctors at the district hospital than surgical strikes across the border.
“Yes, events such as Pulwama and Balakot air strikes have made the situation favourable for the BJP, but one must understand that these occurrences were, are and will remain a part of a persistent challenge. The State and political parties need to work on a rehabilitation policy for residents in LoC areas instead of just restricting the problem to being an electoral issue,” says Gulshan Rashid Bhat, an assistant professor of geography at the Department of Higher Education in Rajouri.
Sunny Singh, who works for a local newspaper, says the people of Poonch, over and above religion and traditional loyalty, prioritise “local work”. “There weren’t people at the [BJP] rally here on Saturday but at a recent public meeting addressed by [Congress leader] Dr. Ghulam Nabi Azad there wasn’t even space to set foot in. It is a fact that previous Congress governments have done a lot of work and that’s why the party, on its own, is enough to contest against the face of the Prime Minister,” he says.
Krishan Singh, a transporter, says he is “annoyed” with the BJP despite having benefitted from a scheme for the welfare of people displaced from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “No one thought about us earlier but Modiji gave ₹5 lakh to the people displaced from PoK. But we are still annoyed with him because of our MP. We have heard about Jugal Kishore but never seen him,” he says.
Anil Maini, a trader, says issues like the Ram Mandir and scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A aren’t “real”. “These are not issues but promises which won’t and can’t be kept,” he says.
Down in Nowshera, BJP’s State president Ravinder Raina’s constituency, Subhash Kapoor, a leader of the local traders’ community, questions the timing of the government’s stance towards Pakistan. “We support the Balakot air strikes but what about jobs for youth and the condition of roads?” he asks.