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With camps for Pandit voters & push for ST status for Paharis, BJP eyes ‘minority pockets’ in J&K

BJP marking upcoming Panchayati Raj Diwas celebration programme in Jammu on 24 April as start of its poll campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Samba for the event.

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New Delhi: The BJP has chalked out strategies to win Jammu & Kashmir in the next assembly election: Absorb leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC) to get a foothold in the minority-dominated Valley, and reach out to the Pahari community by pushing for ST status for them.

Reservation efforts for OBCs in Kashmir are also in the works, say BJP leaders.

The party is marking the upcoming Panchayati Raj Diwas celebration programme in Jammu on 24 April as the start of its poll campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Samba for the event, which will see 1 lakh BJP cadres and chiefs of grassroots organisations — 280 DDC members, 289 BDC chairmen, 4,159 sarpanch and 28,000 panch — in attendance.

It will be the PM’s first mega convention in J&K after the scrapping of Article 370 in August 2019.

Ashish Sood, the BJP’s co-in-charge of J&K, said: “The PM’s visit is essentially to celebrate the success of Panchayati Raj institutions and all three tiers of the body have been invited for this event. BJP workers will assemble to listen to the PM on this day.”

The Election Commission will decide when to hold the assembly elections in J&K after completion of delimitation of 90 assembly and five parliamentary constituencies there.

Also read: Kashmiri Pandits’ organisation criticises Punjab CM over meeting with UK MP Dhesi

Inducting leaders from rival parties

Just last week, the BJP managed to break the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Himachal Pradesh by inducting many of its senior leaders into the party.

In J&K, the BJP is applying the same strategy with the NC and the PDP — two parties that have governed the erstwhile state for long.

A Jammu BJP leader said: “More than 40 leaders from NC and PDP have joined the party in the last five months.” The crossovers have come in the wake of Devender Singh Rana, younger brother of Union minister Jitendra Singh, switching over from the NC to the BJP in October 2021.

Other known faces the BJP has inducted include NC’s Surjit Slathia, former minister Prem Sagar Aziz, and former PDP MLC Surinder Choudhary, as well as deputy mayors, Block Development Council (BDC) chairmen, and panchayat heads.

Earlier this month, Choudhary, a prominent Jat and the PDP’s face in Jammu region, joined the BJP in the presence of visiting BJP in-charge of J&K and party general secretary Tarun Chugh in Jammu.

Choudhary accused PDP president Mehbooba Mufti of “ruining the party by pursuing a Pakistani agenda in J&K”.

Last December, Kashmiri Pandit leader Anil Dhar quit the NC, saying the party had “lost interest in the cause of the Pandits”.

Most switchovers have taken place in Jammu region, and the BJP is now eyeing the minority-dominated NC and PDP strongholds of Poonch and Rajouri.

Former J&K deputy CM Nirmal Singh told ThePrint: “Almost the entire leadership of NC and PDP is finished in the Jammu region. The Congress does have a presence in J&K but they are busy in fighting among themselves and are directionless. The BJP is making inroads into regions where leaders earlier had reservations in joining the party.”

Soothing the Jats, wooing the Paharis 

The induction of Choudhary into the BJP has given the party a boost in areas where there is resentment among the Jat community over the Delimitation Commission’s report that recommends Samba and Kathua regions to be reserved as SC seats.

Since the majority of Jat population resides in the border areas of Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts, the idea has not gone down well with the community. Nearly 5 lakh Jats, who crossed over from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir during 1947, live in the areas along the Line of Control (LoC).

The Delimitation Commission, in an initial draft, has proposed nine seats for the ST community and seven for the SC community in J&K. Five of the proposed SC seats have considerable Jat presence.

The commission has also recommended ST reservation for Paharis — an idea key to the BJP’s outreach efforts in the Pir Panjal area where the community, which is mostly into farming and cattle-rearing, has been demanding ST status for decades. There are 9.6 lakh Pahari community people in J&K.

In February, prominent Pahari leader and former minister Mushtaq Bukhari, who was the face of the NC in Pir Panjal area, left the party over the issue. Although he has not joined the BJP yet, party leaders say he would help in the efforts towards ST status for the Paharis.

The Gujjar-Bakerwals, the two traditional herders’ communities that are more socially backward, were granted ST status in 1991. The STs have 10 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions in J&K.

Now, the BJP, which is in power at the Centre, has promised ST status to the Pahari community in a bid to win over the votebank. For this, Union Home Minister Amit Shah gave the signal during his visit to J&K in November, when he met representatives from the Pahari community who were pushing for the demand.

The grant of ST status to the Paharis would also pit the community against the Gujjar-Bakerwals.

That the BJP is eyeing the Pahari votebank was evident when Shah chose Ravinder Raina, a Pahari, as state party president in 2018.

‘Special camps’ for Pandits

According to a senior BJP leader, “The Kashmir Files movie, and the issue of nationalism has only rejuvenated our hold among the Kashmiri Pandits.”

Most of the community is settled in Jammu. In the 2014 assembly election, the BJP had swept the Jammu region, bagging 25 of 37 seats, which was its best performance there. In 2008, the BJP bagged 11 seats in Jammu while it had presence in only one seat in 2002.

“We are not concentrating on new areas but protecting our old strongholds. And we are holding special camps to locate Kashmiri Pandit voters who are scattered outside. There are 7 lakh such voters and we are locating them so that during election they can vote smoothly,” the leader said.

“Besides this, we have deputed two persons at every booth to check whether people are getting benefits from government schemes and programmes such as PM Awas Yojana and E-Shram cards, and to ensure that those who are not registered can be enrolled into the central schemes,” he added.

If the Delimitation Commission’s proposals go through, the total assembly seats in Jammu region will go up to 43 from 37, and in Kashmir region to 47 from 46.

Another senior BJP leader from J&K said: “We have strongholds in Hindu-dominated Jammu, Kathua, Samba and Reasi area. After delimitation, we can win 35 seats in Jammu province only, while the rest can go to small parties and Independents from Kashmir. ST status for Paharis and OBC reservation will boost our chances in the Valley and in adjoining districts.”

Sood said: “The government has constituted the G.D. Sharma Commission for OBC reservation which is in the final stage of preparing its report. Since there is no reservation for OBCs in Kashmir, giving them so would help more than 13-14 castes in the minority-dominated Valley.”

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: J-K’s debt pile grows to Rs 83,536 Cr: CAG

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