BJP prospects in Assembly polls in J&K

Nishikant Khajuria
As the Supreme Court has set September 2024 deadline for conducting the long-overdue Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory, speculations abound regarding the timing, given the preference of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central Government for an opportune moment, which may suit the ruling party.
While upholding the decision to abrogate the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud expressly directed that the Election Commission of India (ECI) must conduct elections to the Legislative Assembly of J&K by September 30, 2024.
Since the collapse of Mehbooba Mufti- led Coalition Government following exit of BJP from the ruling alliance in June 2018, Jammu and Kashmir has been under Central rule. Last Assembly elections in erstwhile J&K State were held in 2014. Following the imposition of Governor’s rule in J&K, the Assembly was put in suspended animation. However, on November 22, 2018, the then Governor Satya Pal Malik, who succeeded N N Vohra on completion of the former’s extended term, dissolved the Assembly after both Mehbooba Mufti and Sajjad Gani Lone of People’s Conference separately staked claim to form Government with the support of NC and BJP, respectively.
Contrary to the speculations that Assembly polls would be conducted soon along with Lok Sabha general elections in May 2019, J&K continued to remain under the Governor’s rule and then came August 5, 2019, when Special Status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was revoked besides re-organization of the erstwhile State into two Union Territories – J&K and Ladakh.
In June 2021, the Central Government initiated a delimitation exercise to redraw the constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory. Even as the mega exercises for the delimitation of constituencies followed by revision of electoral rolls got completed by November 2022 and the security situation also improved after abrogation of Article 370, no Assembly elections were held. Even as Election Commission of India is the authority for taking decision over conducting the polls, it is an open secret that ruling BJP did not give a green signal for the Assembly elections in J&K. The secret surveys conducted by the party high command had purportedly raised doubts over winning prospects of required number of BJP candidates and those from unofficial allies for forming a Government in J&K notwithstanding claims of unprecedented development era ushering in the Union Territory in the last three years.
This is the second longest period in the history of Jammu and Kashmir when there has been no popular Government to run the public affairs. Earlier, it was in January 1990, when the Governor’s rule was imposed in Jammu and Kashmir following resignation of then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah amid eruption of militancy in Kashmir valley, kidnapping of Rubiya Sayeed and appointment of Jagmohan as Governor of the State. The Governor’s rule, imposed then in 1990, had continued for more than six years till holding of Assembly polls in 1996 and return of Farooq Abdullah as the Chief Minister.
Even as there is tremendous improvement in the security situation, there has been no popular Government in J&K for the last more than five years. The Central Government’s claim of ensuring democracy at grass root level through Panchayat Raj Institutions and Local Bodies in J&K also flattens with the expiration of tenure of all the elected Municipal bodies in November-December and the Panchayats completing their tenure on January 9 without fresh elections. Despite repeated announcements by the Government for timely conducting local body elections and even gearing up the official machinery for the same, the secret surveys of the ruling party, which hint that political situation was not favourable for BJP in J&K, was again the reason for resorting to cancellation of the polls at eleventh hour even as the reason officially listed for the same was according representation to Other Back Classes (OBCs).
During the period of these more than five years, speculations kept rising from different political quarters about holding of J&K Assembly elections and every time, only disappointment was seen. The state of disappointment over repeated denial of elections could be gauged from the fact that a majority of political activists have started assuming that there would be no Assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir as long as BJP is ruling the Centre.
Even as the Supreme Court’s recent directive for Assembly polls in J&K Union Territory by September 2024 has brought renewed focus, still doubts linger among some political parties and analysts about the likelihood of a popular Government materializing in near future, at least before September 2024. Though upcoming Lok Sabha polls are approaching nearer, the opposition parties are still in confusion over joining hands against BJP. Further, there is apparent lack of enthusiasm in the opposition camp for the Lok Sabha polls as surprising victory of BJP in the recently held Assembly elections of three States has made it almost clear that the saffron party will return to power for the third consecutive time with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.
In this political landscape, the BJP’s strategic advantage lies in potentially synchronizing Jammu and Kashmir Assembly polls with the Lok Sabha general elections in April-May 2024. The party’s groundwork and political activities, though primarily geared towards the Lok Sabha polls, contribute to strengthening its position for the Assembly elections too. While the opposition parties don’t seem quick enough to gear up for the Lok Sabha polls preparations, the BJP on the other hand has almost completed its booth level programmes and its other political activities are gaining pace with each passing day.
Further, simultaneous elections would allow the BJP to leverage pan-India issues like national security and the Ram temple, to overshadow local concerns. By framing the contest as Modi versus others, the BJP could minimize the prominence of regional issues. Therefore, holding Assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir along with the Lok Sabha general elections in April-May2024 would be most suitable timing for the ruling BJP and the Central Government may think of taking benefit of this opportune moment.
The decision, however, hinges on an assessment of the winning prospects of at least 45 BJP and allied candidates. If the situation deems BJP victory improbable, Jammu and Kashmir may continue awaiting a popular Government, possibly until Census 2026 and subsequent developments notwithstanding Supreme Court deadline for conduct of Assembly polls by September 2024.