11th April, 2019, the polling day in Baramullah and Jammu-Poonch constituency during the recently concluded Lok-Sabha elections, dawned as another normal bright sunny day. The difference though was that the town was relatively calmer after many days of deafening campaign by the cacophonous loudspeakers which strolled across the town area on mini-vans. Poonch, a borderland district with 6-7% Hindu population mostly situated in the town area, had been an amusing area to observe for election-onlookers all this while ever since the campaigning had gathered pace. Since the district falls under Jammu constituency, the campaign machinery of the Bhartiya Janta party had been overtly active in the town. The district is divided into four tehsils, with tehsil haveli having around 49 villages. With the rising migratory trends, Hindus and Sikhs have largely shifted from these villages to the town-area, hence providing a firm ‘base’ in the town, something that the BJP has been seeking in the peripheral regions outside Jammu. The result is such that in the past few years, BJP has managed to come up with one of its kind district-party-office, hinting at its ambitions and the very many proliferating branches in this border district. One of my respondents at the promise of anonymity added that no main party has managed to build such a big party office in past 70 or so years of elections in the state, the fact that BJP did it in a short span of 3-4 years shows the ground work they have focussed upon. He further added that the people now recognise their work through the permanent structures such as the party headquarter in the town that they have constructed. This shows that the district with a sitting BJP-MLC has solid party networks something that was difficult to imagine a few years ago.
The improbability of BJP creating such a robust mesh in the town area was largely based upon the disproportionate population that is segregated unevenly all over the district. The villages largely have Muslim base, something which the PDP and NC have been catering to successfully since ages. On the polling day, at one of the polling stations within the town, I observed that even in the early morning the station had BJP workers, commonly known as agents. Agents are those who overlook the polling process on the behalf of the party and keep a check on malpractices like rigging, proxy etc and also facilitate party’s agenda on the D-day. However, the amusement that morning was that the station only had BJP workers duly assigned by the party, and the first thing one could have observe was ‘where are the agents from other parties, and why have they chosen to be absent knowing well that BJP has done its homework well and have assigned workers appropriately at many stations in the town?’. On enquiring later in the day, I came to know that the Congress-NC coalition and the PDP usually focus on the peripheral village level polling stations in the district where they are confident that the BJP cannot intrude in their voter-bases. So even if BJP focuses upon all the polling stations in the town, a larger voter base that is situated in the villages of district Poonch shall be devoid of such a hefty presence of polling-agents from BJP.
Speaking of the villages, another respondent from Saloonia, in village Sathra, a village with a mix of Gujjar and Pahari-Kashmiri population added that the polling day didn’t end without a giant fiasco where arguments turned into something that has been unheard of. He claimed that after a certain period, the villagers began doubting the EVMs and according to his story, some of them entered into altercation with the booth-officers resulting in confiscation of EVM by the villagers. Looking for more details in order to corroborate his claims I asked if the villagers filed a complaint with the election-authorities, to which he had no answer. But the enthusiasm and zeal with which him and his village-mates were narrating the incident showed how the EVMs scam as raised by the main opposition parties at the centre did have its reverberations in one of the remotest villagers in the borderland district of the conflict ridden state as well.
The BJP was credited with its solid ground work when they won Tripura after 25 or so years of incumbent left-front in 2018. The theories that have been floating since then about their sturdy ground-work and the way they have been penetrating into untouched corners of the country through their workforce were in fact evident when they put up a strong show in this border town of Poonch knowing well that a strong worker-network within the town would hardly help them when the larger proportion of voters based in villages would not have voted for them. This in my opinion is a equally and challenge and a wakeup call to other parties who chose to remain less active in the town-polling-stations in the on-going elections. Continuously ignoring such signs can prove disastrous to them as well as to regions such as these that are already gasping for a breath of normalcy. Pockets like a borderland have the capacity to turn-tables through their voter base. The flip side of the entire story is that with their growing work-force and strong ground-work, what is at stake is also the polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims, which otherwise are crucial for the communal harmony of an already war torn borderland such as Poonch which faces incessant cease-fire violations on an everyday bases. This election season, the quick observation that has shone light on BJP and its workforce with their prominent election activity has been manifest to the extent that driving from Rajouri to Poonch the entire pathway is covered with BJP flags. This shows the inputs the right-wing has managed to put in especially in a border-district where the only voters they can get are the 5-6% non-Muslims situated primarily in the town centre. Important lesson to take away from this season is for the rest of the parties like NC, PDP, Congress etc is that if they want to bridge this communal divide in the state and strive for harmony in these difficult times, they need to counter BJP with an equally strong ground-work that can connect them specifically with the Hindu-Sikh voter in such pockets of the state, because it is these non-Muslim strata that the BJP has been focussing upon and if sold it will be a disaster for the borderland of Poonch and for other regions of the same kind. Border constituencies have a ton other issues that need to be addressed immediately. If caught up in this hindu-muslim divide, the borderlands might end up losing their minority population at the hands of political activities that strike right at the communal divide. I hope Congress, National Conference, People’s Democratic Party, People’s Conference and the new entrants like the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement are paying attention.
(Malvika Sharma is PhD scholar at Jawarlal Nehru University, New Delhi)