To woo voters for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, BJP chose green over its true colour in the valley. However, the party’s Kashmir campaign marked by clear cut ideology and plan is completely a departure from the life-sized billboard and frontpage advertisements.
Compromising on his hot-served mid-day meal, he was on phone explaining a Dainik Bhaskar journalist the ‘simple’ theory of nationalism – as directly proportional to that of being a Bhartiya Janta Party supporter.
The reporter of the Hindi-daily had supposedly returned after a week long on-ground assignment on the right-wing party’s campaign in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.
“But well, make sure you neatly mention in your reportage that there was absolute support from party’s media coordinator, okay?” he particularly stressed, before concluding the phone-call to get back to his half-left meal.
Once himself a journalist of Zee media – saffron party’s right-in-pocket news house – Manzoor Bhat now overlooks BJP’s well-controversial Media and IT cell in Kashmir.
Being dedicatedly given a separate space in Srinagar office, a huge lotus-printed banner with ‘BJP Media Centre Kashmir’ written in a dark-bold font, floats freely on the orange-coloured wooden wall – symbolising the party’s saffron theme loud and bright; while the decorated tri-coloured balloons speak high volumes of its obviously ultra-nationalist love.
But one thing that distinctly caught my eyes was the placement of the photo-frames – with party-head Narendra Modi’s picture on the top-left aligned with that of his buddy Amit Shah at the far-right, beneath followed the mini-sized frames of its state leaders.
Going to the parliamentary and assembly elections, as Manzoor says, the party has done all the necessary homework to contest in the big elections, and in case Plan A doesn’t work, it has its ‘on-field backup’ as Plan B to take them through.
“See there’re many in Kashmir who although may not endorse BJP from the front, but definitely support us from the back. Now it’s not necessary they may come out in open; basically, we have our field set,” he boasts.
“And who are these people?” I ask.
“Rest assured, we’ve our men out there…”
In another day, the party’s senior leader and infamously the ‘anti-Momo man’ from Jammu was now called upon to address the party’s proxy fielders elected in recently held local polls. Under the open skies in Srinagar office, the ever-controversial MLC Ramesh Arora sitting alongside several senior party faces was given the task to motivate the assembled bunch of Panchs, Sarpanchs and the corporators for the big elections.
Once a promissor of ‘non-AFSPA atmosphere’, Arora now five years down the line sees hope in these local representatives, as he begins his speech heavily stressing on the need to aware common Kashmiris of ‘Modiji’s vision’ – “Only then will Kashmir heal…”
“You’ve to do this,” he raises his pitch, “to bring back in power the man who has provided gas cylinders to every household, the man who has the vision to give every family a home by 2020, and the man, who has thought good of everyone.”
High on hopes, the man and his party now look forward to contesting the parliamentary elections scheduled next week – leaving behind the horrors of past. In his speech, Arora preaches to flip the ‘impossible’, weirdly, sighting the neighbouring rival-country as the ‘classic example’.
“Had any of us ever thought this Pakistan will occupy our land? Or a country like Pakistan could even be built? And then it would also end up parting ways with Bangladesh?” he addressed the gathering.
Decoding it, all Arora wanted to convey was that there have been unexpected events in the past, and BJP – whose poor yore speaks for itself – can now ‘change the history’ by doing the unpredictable: winning a seat from Kashmir valley.
And for that, this time around the party has fielded three well-known faces to contest for the parliamentary seats – Khalid Jehangir from Srinagar, MM War from Baramulla and Sofi Yousuf from Anantnag.
Lately, during the in-party discussion with the local representatives, Jehangir was the man in focus, so much so, that he was introduced during the event as the resembler of Narendra Modi. His highlight of the speech was when he revealed the election slogan ‘Jhooth chodo, sach bolo’, which is ironic owing to the BBC’s study that says the supporters of saffron party share more fake news than any other outfit.
“Since 1947 our politicians have only lied to us… but the BJP has an idea of empowering the local Kashmiris in the mainstream. Hame desh ko joddna hai, toddna nahi [We need to build this country hand-in-hand, instead of leading it to destruction.] Now is the time we walk by the vision of our Prime Minister, which is ‘sabka sath sabka vikaas’. (We need) good hospitals, roads and metros and we will work for it,” addressed Jehangir, a former journalist who joined the party only in 2014.
This ‘interaction’ with the locally elected workers was held on simple calculations, as Avinash Rai Khanna, party’s J&K in-charge noted to this reporter: “BJP has about 1800 panchs, sarpanchs and corporators and if you on an average count five voters from each one, then that’s potentially a huge number.”
And going to the parliamentary and assembly polls, the party is focusing heavily on the ground influencers, one in the form of locally elected workers and other as polling booth agents. According to the party spokesperson Altaf Thakur, in around 80 percent of voting booths, the BJP has fielded on an average 7-10 workers, under the ‘1 booth, 10 youth’ initiative.
“These agents are responsible to reach out to the people and aware everyone about the party’s vision, which many in Kashmir have misunderstood,” Thakur says.
When asked how confident he is about the final outcome, he answers, “Honestly, as of now we cannot claim of ourselves to be among the winners…Party hasn’t yet come to that level of winning a parliamentary seat. But regardless, we are putting all our efforts with 100% intent.”
Thakur isn’t the only one to believe so; the party’s candidate from Anantnag, Sofi Yousuf, is of the same opinion.
For BJP, Yousuf is a cult player in the political field. Having been associated with the party from past 23 years, he has represented the rightwing outfit already a multiple times in big elections, however, all ending up on the losing note. Probably now, as he makes one believe, Yousuf is one learned individual due to his past experiences.
“We’re hopeful of winning,” he said, keeping it low.
At the Anantnag office, Yousuf was on his toes, attending his men, one-after-another, only two days before the nomination date – March 30, as circled red in his calendar. He was seeking every possibility of a vote from his south Kashmir constituency, hoping, this time the tables would turn.
But he knows the southern part of the valley is also the base of former chief minister, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti. He’s also aware of his other competitors.
And then politically working in restive south has never been a cakewalk, as he said, “it’s a high-risk affair”. For instance, attending the police officers in-charge of providing him the security, Yousuf, the former MLC did not look happy. “See I’m under constant death threat,” he told one of the officers.
“And obviously that is because I’m a BJP worker. I’ve been attacked several times by the militants. If I show you the entire left of my body, you won’t find a single piece of meat. So please be cautious and brief your men, right?” a worried Yousuf, the former cop added.
Despite the life-threatening attacks, Yousuf’s love and loyalty for the party has always remained unhurt. He joined the party in 1994 and evolved during the times pro-militia Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon had noted their arrival amidst an all-time-high anti-India uprising.
According to the policeman-turned-politician, he had done extensive research on all the parties before deciding to join BJP, and compared to the rest, Yousuf found the right-wing outfit to be “secular, nationalist and development-oriented”.
“Regional parties like NC, PDP and even Congress have played the mazhab card here. The BJP had been victimised to be anti-Muslim by these regional parties,” he said. “They claimed the Muslims will have to leave India if our party comes to power, but Modiji proved those evil spirits wrong, that no, we are meant for development and safeguarding our motherland. When the PM came to Kashmir for the first time, he heaped mercy on us by declaring a package of Rs 80,000 crores…but for Pakistan, watching India prosper isn’t a happy sight. Their paid agents here have misused our youth and they don’t want peace in Kashmir.”
But as they say you cannot be a BJP loyalist without hating Pakistan.
Even Yousuf’s counterpart, MM War fighting from Baramulla constituency doesn’t leave out on slamming the next-door neighbour. Only recently after filing his nomination papers, he had demanded an FIR against his rival, NC’s Muhammad Akbar Lone, seeking the electoral officer to disqualify him for “praising Pakistan”.
Unlike Yousuf, the man from Rafiabad is confident, or even perhaps, overconfident of winning from his north Kashmir constituency.
“Agar ek vote Rafiabad ka BJP ke khilaaf nikla, mujhe kasam hai Rabbulalameen ki zaat ka, Hindustan ka jitna media hai bulaaunga aur resign kardunga [I swear by the sustainer of the worlds, if a single vote from Rafiabad goes against the BJP, I will resign right in front of the entire Indian media],” War announced while conversing with local journalists off-camera, two days after his nomination-filing. He was surrounded by his on-ground workers, whom he says, have been working day in and out to help BJP ‘bloom at least one lotus in the valley’.
War is associated with the party from about 30 years, and today, he’s is the chosen one among the list of nine recommendations put forward to New Delhi. Even as this reporter tried chasing War thrice, not once was the busy man able to attend him. He had his reasons: “Press is not going to vote, but my janta will.”
But yet, the grey moustache-man has several journalists ‘in his pockets’. For instance, talking to a local electronic mediaperson, he was thrown a question on party’s stand on the state subject issue, to which, when War wasn’t able to answer up to his satisfaction, he asked the journalist to reframe the question and again cam-record his answer; the reporter did so with a smile.
“War sahab, do you think the opposition party is over-politicising Article 370 and 35-A to run propaganda against you and your party and disturb peace in Kashmir?”
“Your question is absolutely genuine. Let me tell you, the state subject will remain the same till the dawn of judgement day. No government can tinker with Article 370 and the 35-A. The BJP has been in power from five years, and had we wanted to scrap it, we would have done it long back. I want to make the Kashmiris cautious of not falling in the false trap of NC, Congress or the PDP,” he answers, and chuckles right as the cameraman puts down his lense: “Now give this frame enough space on TV, okay?”
One quality that every BJP worker possesses in him is his ‘hyper-nationalistic’ love for India, which obviously seems attainable only after displaying public hate for Pakistan, and the man I stumbled upon on my first-ever visit to the Srinagar office was the epitome of all.
My debut visit to the party office couldn’t have gotten any shadier. At the very entrance, I was welcomed by armed men in uniform, who had allowed me inside only after thorough frisking and interrogation. Their eyes, however, kept following me, until I disappeared in the office’s grey vibe.
On entering, the ground passage had worn a dark look, despite it being unusually sunny that day. There was no scope for sunlight to pass through the closed doors and curtained windows.
It was, fortunately, the smell of cigarette smoke coming from the first floor that guided me to a staircase on the ground. Every step I took on that wooden-stairway strangely set its own distinguished tune.
Of the three rooms on the first floor, only the one at the right had its door open. Inside, was a man in his mid-40s – sitting on a wooden chair, holding a cigarette – just about to take the next drag of smoke. He was left disturbed with a knock on his door.
As I leaned forward for a handshake, I introduced myself and my purpose of visit, while in-return, he paused for a second, took a puff and gestured: “Take a seat!”
He began speaking.
“Whether or not the elections get delayed or the situation turns unfavourable, or for that matter, whatever happens, the BJP is ready to participate, and more importantly, emerge winners,” he confidently claimed. “We are always prepared!”
“But before we talk about this any further, let me first begin with saying: Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. And before you ask me how, allow me to explain.”
He then asked me to remove my notepad and write ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ alongside drawing five bullet points, where I wrote – Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit-Baltistan.
“We used to have five divisions, but then on one fateful day of 22nd October 1947, just two months after we (India) attained independence, the Pakistan army notoriously invaded our home. That is when the honourable Shri Maharaja Hari Singh ji joined hands with India to push back the occupiers. The history says so: Pakistan has always wanted to disrupt the peace of Kashmiris.”
He continued, and for the next 15 minutes he kept explaining why J&K is India’s “integral part”. His colossal hate for Pakistan and hyper love for his country was very evident. Even though the room where only two of us were sitting-in was now slowly getting filled with other party members, he continued – despite clashes of multiples voices, his was the loudest. So full of enthusiasm, that he even ‘forgot’ to introduce himself, only to realise when interrupted: “Oh, sorry! I am Mohammad Tahir Mir, IT cell and media operative, Bhartiya Janta Party.”
There was no stopping Mir, as even after the introduction he spoke for straight one hour, all without a single question from my end. The only thing worth taking note of from his marathon speech was the membership count from across the valley, which according to him, is about 4.5 lakhs.
If the figures are to believed, the enormous rise in active members has been noted only after the party came to power, and after joining hands with PDP, it only sky-rocketed. But despite the numeric boasting, affiliation with BJP is considered life-threatening, going with the words of Srinagar district president, Arif Raja himself: “Kashmir me Bhajpa chalana, Dilli me Hizbul Mujaheedin chalaane ke barabar hai [Running BJP in Kashmir is as good as operating Hizbul Mujahideen in Delhi.]”
Just a few weeks back in the party’s ‘first of its kind’ convention in Kashmir, the crowd of 500 were struck with identity-fear when a photojournalist present at the event shuttered his camera at their faces. The photographer’s lense ended up capturing the attendants rolling themselves embarrassingly down their pherans, some hiding behind the party-printed leaflets and while many pleading ‘camera neeche karo, aap hame marwaaoge’ [put down the camera, you are risking our lives] – all in the middle of the convention.
For the party workers, the death threat has always loomed large. From someone as higher-up as Yousuf Sofi to mere on-ground workers, scores fear the anti-India bullet, but, not this one man – who claims to fearlessly walk in open despite security and accommodation from the party’s end. He ‘prefers’ living at his own residence in the old city’s Habba Kadal.
Going to the assembly elections, he introduces himself as BJP’s ‘only hope’ to win a seat from Kashmir – “believe it or not,” as he says.
Habba Kadal is one such constituency where the Pandit votes are always up for grabs. But despite the pro-Hindu approach, the party has always fallen short of a few handy votes from the in-house locals. Since the 1996 election till 2014, BJP has fielded a Pandit candidate, who although, has every time managed to pull off the migrant votes from Jammu, but the lack of local presence has had been the primary reason of defeat.
Now going to 2019, the BJP wouldn’t want to repeat the ‘same old mistake’.
“Whosoever be the contestant, the migrant votes are going nowhere. All BJP has to do in order to break the jinx is choose a local face, and for that, do they have a better choice than me?” he asks tapping his driver’s shoulder, who boasts ‘arey sawaal hi nahi sir’ [without a shadow of doubt, sir].
This 30-year-old ‘face’ walks around carrying two tags – one, of the BJP worker, and other of a turncoat.
“Yes, I am that same person whose two pictures, one with Yasin Malik and other with the BJP members had gone viral on social media saying: We are everybody, Hurriyat, BJP, Stonepelter, Ikhwani…”
“My name is Nazir Ahmad Gilkar,” he introduced himself, and when asked if that doesn’t make him fear for his life, he replied, like a typical politician: “Why should I? I am a leader and I will always live among my people.”
Gilkar isn’t new to politics. Even in 2014 he had independently contested from the Habba Kadal seat and fallen way short of the victory mark. But this time around he is confident of pulling off the win, if only the party decides to give him the mandate.
“I have the local support and BJP has the minority votes, the equation couldn’t get any simpler,” he explains.
Last year in October, Gilkar had contested as a proxy during the municipal elections and won with 77 votes – of which 69 were migrants. “Although,” he says, “those local votes look only a handful, but each of them will matter while fighting for the assembly seat. And who doesn’t know the saying – every vote counts?”
“Remember,” he further adds, “It’s not that I am dependent on the party, or vice versa; we both need each other in order to win from Habba Kadal, and I once again repeat I am the party’s only hope from Kashmir. Even if Modiji comes and contests from one of the seats, he won’t win. There’s no chance Kashmir will ever accept BJP,” he adds.
Then, what makes him continue working for the ‘unfavoured’ party?
“See,” he explains, “One always chooses his career options considering the future scope. I am not doing anything different. At this moment, BJP is the only party that has been easily giving the mandate to Kashmiris. Now suppose if I win tomorrow and make a name in this field, I may decide to join any other party of my choice. But yes, if things go well, I may even work for BJP all my life, who knows?”
Unlike the previous assembly elections where the party had an over-ambitious ‘Mission 44-plus’, this time around, it has a practical roadmap – easy and simple: Other than Habba Kadal, the primary focus is on three more constituencies: Sopore, Tral and Eidgah.
Back in BJP office, Manzoor Bhat, party’s media in-charge, took his time to name “our men out there”. For a change, he prioritised four seats, as BJP’s prime plan this summer. Why? “Because these areas see fewer turnouts and the ones who vote are migrants.”
And in case the party again falls flat, Manzoor said, the New Delhi has a plan B ready – the ‘naye dost’.
“See let me tell you we got backups. We need about ten seats from Kashmir; not saying we will independently win from all, but yes with the help of our new friends,” he said.
“So who are these new friends?” I asked.
“Sajad Lone is one, Shah Faesal…”
“Nahi. Mein yeh nahi keh raha Shah Faesal hamara hai, lekin ho sakta hai. Buss yeh hai ki party ke paas bahot options hai. [No, not saying the party owns Shah Faesal. But it’s just that we have plenty of options out there.]”
This was the second time Manzoor had mentioned Faesal while discussing the election plan. Only ten minutes into the interview when he was asked what he thinks about the former IAS officer’s political stance, Manzoor had said: “Shah Faesal will obviously do something. He has the blessings of New Delhi. The Centre has planted him here. Who would give away IAS just like that?”
True or not, but so far the administrator-turned-politician has shown no signs of association with the saffron party, come to his speeches and interviews.
But what comes out of all the hoo-ha will only be figured out on the day election commission will be out with the results. Until then, concluding with the lofty claim of Manzoor, as he says: “Who has a stronghold and who doesn’t, that will be eventually out in public. But I’ll tell you, there can’t be a government in Jammu and Kashmir without the BJP.”
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