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Who Benefits From the Deferment of the Lok Sabha Election in Anantnag-Rajouri?

The beneficiary of this move could potentially be PDP President Mehbooba Mufti.

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One of the great mysteries that prevails in the present Lok Sabha elections is why the polling date for the recently created Anantnag-Rajouri constituency has been delayed from 7 May to 25 May. 

Some observers in Jammu and Kashmir have been left wondering if it could possibly be connected to the fact that the Backerwal tribespeople, and some Gujjars too, herd their sheep and goats up the paths to higher ground for the summer months at just about this time of year. 

Indeed, more and more tribal shepherds, their families and herds have been moving on a daily basis over the past couple of weeks. Some observers are of the opinion that they will not be able to exercise their franchise in those upper reaches of the mountains. 

Tanveer Ahmed Khan, a one-time candidate for the Lok Sabha elections (from the then Anantnag constituency) and a keen political observer of the area, estimates that 50,000 such citizens may move between the beginning of this month and the new polling date.

This would seem to hurt the prospects of Mian Altaf, the National Conference candidate for this seat. Altaf is a Gujjar Pir and commands great respect, particularly among Gujjars of his native Kangan region, but also among less privileged Gujjars across the union territory. He has long been a minister in the Jammu and Kashmir state government and has done a lot for his community. 

The National Conference is a part of the INDIA bloc (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), the main political line-up against the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The ruling party evidently sees the nationwide INDIA bloc as its chief target in these polls. 

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Potential Beneficiaries

The beneficiary of this move could potentially be PDP President Mehbooba Mufti, who is also contesting this seat. Although she is opposed to the BJP, she is not a part of the INDIA bloc — a point that National Conference Vice-president (and former Chief Minister) Omar Abdullah emphasised earlier this week.

Indeed, her party had formed a coalition government with the BJP from 2015, until the BJP withdrew support in 2018. The People’s Conference was also part of that coalition with the BJP, and PC President Sajad Lone was a minister in that government. He is now contesting the Baramulla seat against Omar Abdullah.

Most observers see Sajad as being backed by the BJP. In fact, a key organisational functionary of the BJP had instructed the party’s leaders in the Valley, a little before the election process got going, that they must work for the victories of the parties such as those led by Lone and Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Azad himself was expected to contest the Anantnag-Rajouri seat but evidently got cold feet when PDP and NC announced their candidates. He may have been further unnerved when the Apni Party, led by former minister Altaf Bukhari, fielded Zafar Manhas, a well-known ‘Pahadi’ and one-time secretary of the erstwhile state’s Cultural Academy, as its candidate. 

The BJP’s chief political play in the Rajouri-Poonch region was the grant of scheduled tribe status for Pahadis soon after their constitutional status was changed in 2019. At that stage, it had been presumed that the BJP would seek to gain a political advantage for having done this.

The demand has been simmering ever since Gujjars and Backerwals gained scheduled tribe status in 1992 but had been repeatedly rejected by successive governments on the grounds that Pahadis did not qualify as a tribe. Azad too had refused, when he was the chief minister (2005-08) of the state. 

The BJP may have hoped that their candidate, at least relatively, would get the large majority of Pahadi votes, but some observers claim that the votes of Pahadis appear to be splintering.  

Uncertain Prospects

With regard to its reasoning, the Election Commission’s statement announcing the postponement had said that it was “…. due to various logistic, communication and natural barriers of connectivity turning out as hindrance in campaigning which in turn tantamount to lack of opportunities for the contesting candidates in the said Parliamentary Constituency…”

Most observers have not been able to decipher what exactly that meant. If someone thought it might allow large numbers of Backerwals to undertake their annual migration before the poll, it remains to be seen how that might work out.

While acknowledging that 30,000 to 40,000 Backerwals are in the process of migrating to higher mountain ranges during these weeks, the noted Jammu-based Gujjar leader, Advocate Shah Mohammed Chowdhary, holds that the community’s dedication to the Pir (Altaf of NC) will trump all other considerations.

He claims that Altaf’s following among large numbers of Gujjars and Backerwals in that region is almost as strong as it is in the Kashmir Valley, adding, “chahe inki bhed-bakriyan sher ya bhalu kyon na kha jayein, vote dene zaroor aayenge.” (Even if wild cats or bears take some of their sheep or goats [in their absenc], they will definitely come to vote).

(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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