Could a 1977-like Polling Wave Upend Delhi's Jammu and Kashmir Plans?

Delimitation, Gujjar reservation, and the Shia factor could cause an electoral wave against Delhi.

4 min read
Could a 1977-like Polling Wave Upend Delhi's Jammu and Kashmir Plans?

Some of the most experienced politicians in Kashmir have begun to speculate on whether a 'wave' might develop whenever elections are finally held to elect an assembly for the union territory.

Former minister Nizamuddin Bhat, for instance, has spent half-a-century in politics and journalism since he was a student at Delhi University. He recalls that the only non-NC candidates to scrape through from the Valley in 1977 were Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Abdul Ghani Lone, and Rashid Kabuli (who, one might add, had the backing of the Mirwaiz in the latter’s stronghold). Taking a few seats in the Chenab belt, too, in that triangular contest, Sheikh Abdullah’s party won a 60 per cent majority (47 of 76) in that house.

Another '77-type wave is possible, says Bhat. Leaders like him predict that people 'will come out with venom' to defeat those who are seen as close to the BJP, even in constituencies which such parties might consider safe.

He may have a vested interest, for newer political forces such as Apni Party hope to win constituencies such as his Bandipora seat. But he’s not the only one; other seasoned political observers also talk of the possibility of a wave, not only in the Valley, but also among Muslim voters in the Chenab basin.


Delimitation Dilemmas in Jammu and Kashmir

A couple of other factors will surely have a key effect on how elections play out, whenever they are held. One of these is the process of delimiting constituencies.

Many in Kashmir, including some of its top politicians, believe that the Centre will try its hardest to give its backers and allies in the union territory an advantage. NC President Farooq Abdullah even told me that, `they’ll do everything to rig the election so that their people come.’

It has been announced that the new assembly will have 90 seats. The erstwhile state’s assembly had 87—including four in Ladakh, which is now a separate union territory. That means there are to be seven new seats.

Whichever way the delimitation commission might carve constituencies, it would be tough to defend a significant increase in constituencies dominated by Hindus.

Hindus are concentrated mainly in four-and-a-half districts in the southeast of the union territory, which the BJP already wins handily.

Many constituencies in the Doda and Kishtwar districts have more or less even numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Voters could be polarised here. So the twofold battle will be to prevent one’s co-religionists’ votes from being divided, and to pull away some votes of the other community.

Reservations for Gujjars in Assembly

There is much speculation over how many of the 90 seats will be reserved for women, 'tribals,' and perhaps others. Only seven seats in the erstwhile state’s assembly were reserved—all of them for scheduled castes in the Jammu division.

Some observers speculate that 15 seats might now be reserved for tribals—among whom Gujjars (Muslims in this region) comprise the largest population segment.

While Ghulam Nabi Azad was the chief minister (2005-8), the Congress had established a strong base among Gujjars, many of whom live in the Poonch and Rajouri districts of the Jammu division. The PDP and NC and other parties too will vie for Gujjar votes.

However, it is not clear whether Gujjar voters in reserved and other constituencies would opt for parties closer to New Delhi out of gratitude for the reserved seats.

It is quite possible that the BJP and its friends might meet the same fate as the Congress did when it divided Andhra Pradesh into two states. It lost elections in both the new states.

There is some loose talk of a seat being created in the new J&K assembly for those who migrated during Partition from western parts of the state such as Mirpur and Muzaffarabad. It is not clear how that could work, though, for those who migrated then are aged 74-plus now. It would be challenging to identify deceased migrants’ descendants.


Enigmatic Shia Factor in J&K Politics

There is talk of a new constituency being carved, perhaps in north Kashmir’s Shadipora area, with a concentration of Shia voters.

New Delhi might hope that Shia voters would back nominees of Imran Ansari, who is now in the People’s Conference. Ansari’s family has had a feudal hold over many Shias in north Kashmir for a few generations now.

However, Imran might not prove as persuasive as his late father, whose power stemmed at least as much from the pulpit as the work he got done through government for his followers. Imran has inherited the latter role, but not quite yet established himself authoritatively at the pulpit.

Some even say that Imran himself could have a tough fight in his Pattan constituency in case the sprawling Sunni village, Palhalan, turns out to vote. Voters there have often boycotted polls in recent years, but a putative `wave’ might spark a different response.

A second factor is that many Shias seem as dismayed as other Kashmiris by the constitutional changes, and the general sense of insecurity among Muslims across the land. A Shia activist who runs an NGO in Srinagar goes so far as to say that "Shias are more angry than Sunnis today".

How this resentment will play out will hinge partly on signals from Iran. Many Shias revere Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. And there were even pictures of slain Iranian general Qasim Suleimani among the mourning banners in parts of Kashmir during Moharram last month.

The National Conference is already sure of Shia support in Budgam, where former minister Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi has been the youthful Shia face of NC ever since terrorists assassinated his father in 2002.

The Aga family, as powerful a feudal force as the Ansaris, might influence some votes in the two or three other Shia-dominated constituencies too.

(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). 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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