Rajouri-Anantnag LS seat Testing ground of BJP strategy for J&K

Nishikant Khajuria
As BJP-led Central Government grants Scheduled Tribe Status to the Pahari community, mostly inhabiting the twin border districts of Poonch and Rajouri, all eyes are set on the possible political alignments in the newly carved Rajouri-Anantnag Parliamentary constituency and prospects of the saffron party on this hugely Muslim majority seat have brightened in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
Established in 2022 after delimitation of the Assembly as well as Parliamentary constituencies following re-organization of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State into two Union Territories (J&K and Ladakh), Rajouri-Anantnag Lok Sabha segment has around 90 percent Muslim population and nearly 10 percent Hindus, including Kashmiri Pandits.
The Delimitation Commission established this new Parliamentary constituency by redrawing the boundaries of erstwhile Jammu-Poonch and Anantnag Lok Sabha segments. The entire Poonch district and almost two- third areas of Rajouri district, which were part of Jammu-Poonch Lok Sabha seat, were merged with South Kashmir for the creation of Rajouri-Anantnag Lok Sabha seat and thus enabling both Jammu and Kashmir divisions having two and half Parliamentary seats each.
This new Parliamentary constituency spreads across 18 Assembly segments, including Anantnag, Anantnag West, Budhal, Devsar, DH Pora, Dooru, Kokernag, Kulgam, Mendhar, Nowshera, Pahalgam, Poonch Haveli, Rajouri, Shangus-Anantnag East, Srigufwara-Bijbehara, Surankot, Thannamandi and Zainapora. There is a total of approximately 14 lakh voters in this Parliamentary constituency. While almost 50 percent of the voters are Kashmiri Muslims, the remaining 28.5 percent are Pahari and 21.5 percent Gujjars. Among these 14 lakh voters, hardly 1.5 lakh are Hindus, who include approximately 1.15 lakh Pahari Hindus, 20 thousand Kashmiri Pandits and nearly 15 thousand Sikhs.
Even as most of the Assembly constituencies falling in this Parliamentary seat have had remained bastions of National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, followed by Congress party, the saffron party is eyeing to capture this Lok Sabha seat riding on overwhelming support of the Paharis who comprise around 65 percent Muslims and have announced open support to the saffron party as a reciprocal gesture following the Government move for ST status to them.
Both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have passed the bill granting ST status to the Pahari Kabila thus fulfilling a long pending and most cherished demand of the community. Former minister and senior National Conference leader Mushtaq Ahmed Bukhari, former NC MLC Dr Shahnaz Ganai and several other Pahari leaders have formally joined BJP following passage of the Bill.
On the other hand, Government move has apparently annoyed Gujjar-Bakerwal community in Jammu Kashmir, which already enjoys Schedule Tribe status and believes that inclusion of Paharis into the ST category would dent their interests. Further, little support to the saffron party from South Kashmir is expected. Among all the 18 Assembly segments falling under Rajouri-Anantnag Parliamentary constituency, BJP had won only one seat ever (in 2014 State polls) while its candidates on maximum of the other seats had always forfeited security deposits.
In 2019 Parliament elections, Hasnain Masoodi of National Conference was elected from the erstwhile Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency. Further, the party has significant presence in Poonch-Rajouri areas, which have been merged into this new Lok Sabha seat. It makes NC most strong party here. This is the apparent reason that both Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah have repeatedly made it clear that there is no question of having seat sharing arrangement on the Parliamentary constituencies won by the party in last Lok Sabha polls. Besides Anantnag, NC had won Srinagar as well as Baramulla Lok Sabha seats in 2019 general elections and thus it is almost clear that the party is going to field its candidates on all these three Lok Sabha seats.
On the other hand, both PDP and Congress, which are part of the Gupkar Alliance, cannot afford to vacate all three Lok Sabha seats of Kashmir Valley and leave the field open for NC, particularly at the time when there are indications of Assembly elections this year in view of the Supreme Court direction to the Election Commission in this regard.
Since South Kashmir is the main bastion of PDP and Anantnag is home district of the party supremo Mehbooba Mufti, there seems no possibility of vacating the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat for NC. Moreover, Mehbooba Mufti was elected from Anantnag Lok Sabha twice while in 2014 Assembly polls, PDP had won almost half of the Assembly seats falling under this Parliamentary constituency.
Similarly, Congress also cannot afford to leave the field as the party had last time won three Assembly seats under Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha segment while on several other seats, its candidates had secured second highest votes. Hence, there is every chance of all three parties fielding their own candidates for the Lok Sabha election from Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat.
Amid all these political assessments and strengths of the other parties, BJP is mainly relying on purported overwhelming support of Pahari community, likely multiple divisions of non-Pahari Muslim votes among NC, PDP, Congress and other parties besides possible low poll percentage in South Kashmir.
In the last Parliamentary elections, the erstwhile Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency had registered only 9 percent turnout despite unprecedented security arrangements and polling in three-phases. Past trend of low poll percentage amid call for boycott in south Kashmir, will directly help BJP.
In addition to this, BJP is confident to influence a few Gujjar leaders and some Kashmiri Muslims in certain pockets, who may prefer to side with the political party which is apparently returning to power at the Centre for the third consecutive term. According to a senior BJP leader, for winning the Rajouri-Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, the party requires around one lakh votes in addition to the Paharis and the same is manageable.
While contest on the remaining two Lok Sabha seats in Jammu division is likely to be a cakewalk for the BJP , victory of the party candidate from Rajouri -Anantnag constituency will testify its political strategy for making inroads in the Muslim majority segments to achieve the target of installing a saffron party Chief Minister in Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory, which is likely to undergo Assembly polls this year.