The battleground in the state is shifting to Chenab and Pir Panjal, which have a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims, with a growing sense among political parties that the outcome of any election in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and Hindu-dominated Jammu is a forgone conclusion. The Union Territory has not had an elected government in four years.
Both the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have shifted their focus away from the Kashmir Valley, where their traditional vote banks lie, to Jammu. While PDP president Mehbooba Mufti has toured the Pir Panjal twice in six months, the NC leadership has made several rounds of the region to pep up its cadre ahead in anticipation of an election. The BJP and the Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party have also toured the region in a bid to garner support. Of the 43 seats in the Jammu division, 16 are in the Chenab and Pir Panjal regions. Before delimitation, the two regions had 13 Assembly seats.
The political battle in the Chenab and Pir Panjal is also important as the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — the NC and the PDP are its two main partners — has hinted at a joint front if and when the elections happen. While there has been no formal announcement about a poll alliance, party leaders suggest that there is a consensus on the issue.
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“It (PAGD jointly contesting the election) is more or less a done deal,” said a senior NC leader. “This election is not about development, it is not about bijli, sadak, and paani (bread-and-butter issues). It is to send a message that we are united. It is the fight for identity, a fight for existence. It will be an election fought on sentiments.”
Sources said a joint front of the PAGD and the Congress was unlikely and any alliance with the grand old party would only be tactical. “To be honest, Congress is in a disarray not only nationally but also in Jammu and Kashmir,” said an NC leader. “We don’t even know whom to speak to in the Congress.”
A senior PDP leader said the Congress would not be in favour of an alliance with the PAGD because both the BJP’s and its vote bank is in Jammu. “There is a realisation among the political parties that this election is not for power,” he added. “But as far as the Congress is concerned, any alliance with the PAGD will damage them in Jammu that is their traditional vote bank.
Fundamentally, the Congress and BJP have the same constituency. In the DDC elections, there were some efforts to bring them on a single platform, but you see the Congress had to distance itself from PAGD then. Now, if there has to be an alliance with the Congress, it can only be tactical.”
Though the PAGD’s objective of a joint front is to consolidate the Muslim vote bank in Chenab and Pir Panjal, it is likely to diminish the electoral prospects of smaller political parties in the Valley such as Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference and the Apni Party.
Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad can also play spoilsport for the alliance. While it is not yet clear if Azad will go with the Congress or float his own party comprising Congress dissidents, a new political party will erode the PAGD’s votes in Jammu. “Azad is right now in political wilderness. If he forms his own party, it will not have great prospects. It can at best work as a spoiler for PAGD as it will divide Muslim votes and help the BJP,” said a PDP leader.