At an election rally in Jammu on April 16, Union Home Minister Amit Shah attempted to clear the air over Bharatiya Janata Party’s reluctance to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Kashmir Valley.

“The BJP is not in a hurry to see the lotus bloom in the Valley,” Shah said during a massive rally in Jammu’s Paloura area. “We are not going to conquer Kashmir as projected by our adversaries. We want to win every heart of Kashmir.”

It took three days to get more clarity on his statement. April 19 was the last day for filing nominations for the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat – the first among the three Lok Sabha seats that will vote on May 25. While a total of 25 candidates filed nominations for the seat, none of them was from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

These are the first major elections in Jammu and Kashmir, after the scrapping of its special status and statehood in August, 2019.

A day later, the BJP chief in Jammu and Kashmir, Ravinder Raina, said the party’s decision to avoid contesting elections on the three seats of Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley was to “achieve a big goal.”

“We wanted to fight the elections from all three Lok Sabha seats in Kashmir on our own strength,” Raina told reporters in Jammu on the sidelines of a high-level meeting of the party. “But sometimes different decisions are made to achieve a big goal, setting aside personal interests.”

The party has fielded candidates in Kashmir Valley in every general election from 1996 to 2019.

Political observers say the decision is a tacit acknowledgement of the unfavorable ground situation for the party in the Valley.

“The BJP wanted to avoid a situation where its participation in the election would have turned it into a referendum on the events of August 5, 2019,” said a senior political analyst in Srinagar, who declined to be identified. “Knowing the unpopularity of the move and the anger against it, BJP wanted to avoid that embarrassment.”

Another political observer concurred. “They have possibly realised that Kashmiris will reject them. That would be an embarrassment for Modi and Shah,” he explained.

Lotus in Kashmir

Traditionally, Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley has always been cold to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Riding on the rise of Narendra Modi, the saffron party’s most assertive pitch in the Kashmir Valley came in the 2014 Assembly elections. As it turned out, that was the last Assembly elections to be held in the erstwhile state.

In the 2014 elections, the party’s plank was ‘Mission 44 plus’– a reference to the number of seats required to form the government on its own in the 87-member Assembly. When the election results were announced, the party won 25 seats, its best-ever performance. However, all of them were from Jammu.

As the second largest party, the saffron party went on to rule Jammu and Kashmir for the first time through a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party.

In Lok Sabha elections too, the party has performed abysmally. It fielded its candidates for the first time in the 1996 general election – nearly two decades after its creation. In subsequent elections, it has never won.

The decision not to contest the first general elections after the abrogation of Article 370 has surprised many observers, given New Delhi’s electoral and social engineering in the Union territory since 2019.

From ensuring a delimitation exercise that was widely believed to have favoured Jammu – BJP’s core constituency – and then wooing different communities with reservations, the party seemed to be all geared up for the Lok Sabha elections in the Valley.

“It is a reality check for the BJP,” explained the senior political analyst. “Withdrawing from the contest means it acknowledges that people have rejected the decision of August, 2019.”

For some observers in the valley, this also explains the government’s reluctance to conduct Assembly elections in the Union territory – nearly five years after the scrapping of its special status and statehood. In December, the Supreme Court set a deadline of September this year for the government to conduct Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

The only silver lining for the Bharatiya Janata Party is the decision of the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party to contest elections independently. In 2020, the two parties had contested panchayat elections together and scored big in Kashmir Valley.

‘Patriotic parties’ or proxies?

It would be incorrect, however, to say that the saffron party is completely out of the picture in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections in Kashmir Valley.

During his election rally in Jammu on April 16, Home Minister Amit Shah urged voters to “not to vote for parties like National Conference, Congress and PDP.” He also accused these parties of “promoting terrorism” and carrying out “fake encounters” in Jammu and Kashmir.

The party’s chief in Jammu and Kashmir, Ravinder Raina, offered further explanation. “We are supporting those parties who are patriotic, working for the betterment of Kashmir, strengthening peace and brotherhood and eager to serve the society,” Raina said in Jammu on April 20.

While the Congress and National Conference are fighting three seats under the umbrella of the opposition INDIA alliance, Peoples Democratic Party is fighting alone.

However, rather than targeting each other, the three parties have mostly hit out at what they call “B or C teams of BJP” – a reference to parties like Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, Peoples Conference and Democratic Progressive Azad Party.

All these parties are largely seen as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s plan to rid Jammu and Kashmir of what it calls the “dynastic rule” of National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party.

In a recent interview to The Indian Express, former chief minister Omar Abdullah said as much. “The BJP symbol will not be on the machine but the party is very much part of the political electoral process,” he said.

“The PM and Home Minister talk about defeating the INDIA bloc. They don’t talk about defeating, let’s say, the People’s Conference or Apni Party.”

A matrix of alliances

Led by former Peoples Democratic Party leader Altaf Bukhari, Jammu and Kashmir Apni Parry took birth in the aftermath of August 5, 2019 purportedly with the blessings of New Delhi. The party has usually toed the Centre’s line in Jammu and Kashmir by calling the restoration of special status a “fantasy.”

Another party seen close to New Delhi is former separatist-turned-mainstream leader Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference. An ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the PDP-BJP coalition government formed in 2014, Lone was initially also part of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration – a group of local and national parties fighting for the restoration of pre-August 5, 2019 status of Jammu and Kashmir.

However, Lone quit the alliance over differences with National Conference and Peoples Democratic party in 2021. A fierce critic of NC and PDP, Lone has maintained that the restoration of Article 370 will always be part of his party’s “political aspirations”. Apart from that, his thrust has been on the restoration of statehood of Jammu and Kashmir.

Then there’s former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s newly created Democratic Progressive Azad Party. Azad has clarified that he will not “mislead” voters by talking about the restoration of Article 370.

A cursory look at the strategies adopted by these parties in the ongoing elections suggest that they closely shadow the BJP’s interests.

Take the case of Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat. After initially suggesting he will personally contest the seat, former Congress leader Azad backed out and fielded a lesser-known lawyer on behalf of his party.

While the BJP chose to not field any candidate, the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party has fielded a Pahari candidate, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas – ostensibly to consolidate the Pahari vote bank. The million-strong linguistic minority was granted Scheduled Tribe status by the Centre early this year.

In the absence of the BJP, its votes might transfer to the Apni Party, observers say.

Sajad Lone-led Peoples Conference has not fielded any candidate in the seat.

Similarly, in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, where the National Conference is directly pitted against Sajad Lone, the Apni Party has decided to throw its support behind Lone’s Peoples Conference.

Another Srinagar-based political analyst remarked the saffron party did not have any “fundamental ideological differences” with these parties. “These parties are new and don’t have any baggage of history. Therefore, it would be easier for the BJP to take them on board rather than NC or PDP. There’s no bitterness between BJP and parties like Apni Party, Peoples Conference or Azad’s Party.”

‘Passive separatism’

The fact that India’s two core mainstream parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – have decided to stay away from elections in Jammu and Kashmir is also being seen as an acknowledgement of peculiarity of Kashmir politics.

Instead of the national issues, the central theme of Lok Sabha elections in Kashmir revolves around its special status and identity, observers say.

“The election discourse of mainland India is not visible in Kashmir,” explained the senior political analyst. “Here, even the BJP’s so-called proxies talk about identity and its protection. Mainstream Indian political discourse does not work here even when New Delhi is directly ruling the region. Passive separatism sells here.”

The BJP’s refusal to contest elections in Kashmir is, in some ways, a reflection of the state of flux in Kashmir since 2019. “BJP has been ruling Kashmir through authoritarian control, which does not even enjoy an iota of the consent of the people,” said the senior political analyst. “Kashmir is going through a transition and BJP knows things have not settled.”