In the context of an internet gag across voting constituencies and expected low voter turnout, polling in Jammu and Kashmir has been largely peaceful today. Only 45.64% of eligible voters turned out, the lowest nationally in this second phase of voting, but a major improvement on the 7% turnout that the State saw in 2017 polling.
This article has been updated to reflect the poll numbers for the state with ECI figures as of 10pm Thursday.
In the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir – which has gotten a prominent presence in the ruling party’s election campaign – polling is being conducted in five phases. The state also has the distinction of having the only constituency, Anantnag, that will see voting over an unprecedented three phases. Today, Srinagar and Udhampur go to vote.
Out of the six Lok Sabha seats, two have already seen voting in the first phase on April 11. Jammu and Baramulla had a turnout of over 57%, as a result of the traditionally high voting percentage of 72.16 in the Jammu region.
The state has found a prominent position in the ruling party’s campaign all over the country due to the BJP’s plank of ‘nationalism’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself hinted to first-time voters to choose BJP by urging them to dedicate their vote to the armed forces who died in the Pulwama attack on February 14. The subsequent airstrike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad facility in Balakot is a constant refrain of the BJP’s nation-wide campaign.
The anxieties in the state electorate are not about local issues, but largely about the special status of the state and the continued presence of security forces.
The muscular approach that the reigning Modi government has adopted toward the state has also resulted in an escalation of violence with 2018 alone seeing the highest number of civilian casualties in a decade. Of the 160 civilians killed, 31 were children and 18 women. When this figure includes militants and security forces, it crosses over 500 in the year.
The Congress manifesto promises to centre dialogue as a means of solving the conflict in the state, and an amendment of the AFSPA law to strike a balance between the “powers of security forces and the human rights of citizens and to remove immunity for enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture”.
The BJP’s manifesto renews its promise to remove Article 370 that gives special autonomy to the state. Besides, BJP has also promised to remove Article 35A that ensures special rights to the permanent residents of Kashmir, along with focusing on a firm continuance of a national security policy aimed at strengthening forces.
Opposition and regional parties have assured voters that these provisions will stay in place. While the BJP in Jammu region has been reiterating that Articles 370 and 35A will go away, their candidates in the Valley have tried to distance themselves.
It is largely a three-cornered fight in Kashmir between erstwhile state allies, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP, and the alliance between National Conference (NC) and Congress. Last time, in 2014, Congress and NC drew a blank as PDP and BJP won three constituencies each.
There is also rising angst over the ban on civilian vehicles on the Udhampur-Baramulla highway for two days each week to facilitate the movement of convoys of security personnel. The highway ban has prompted comparisons with Israel.
During the local body elections in October 2018, the turnout was just 35.1% amidst a boycott by the two regional parties.
Both the constituencies that go to polls on April 18 have high-profile candidates.
Sitting Srinagar MP Farooq Abdulla is the favourite to win the quadrilateral contest in the traditional NC stronghold and enter the Indian parliament for the fourth time. His opponents are Aga Syed Mohsin of PDP, Sheikh Khalid Jehangir from BJP and Irfan Ansari of People’s Conference.
Earlier, Khalid Jahangir featured in the news over the candidate going ‘green’ rather than ‘saffron’ in his campaign. Congress has not fielded any candidates for Srinagar.
In Udhampur, the sitting member of parliament and Union minister Jitendra Singh is fighting Congress’s Vikramaditya Singh, son of veteran party leader Karan Singh. Last time, the Congress party was left red-faced when Ghulam Nabi Azad was defeated by Jitendra Singh (then a first-timer) by 60,976 votes. PDP has not fielded any candidates in the two constituencies in the Jammu region so that “secular votes” aren’t split.
Just like Jammu, Udhampur is expected to see a high polling percentage. Last time, the voter turnout was 70.95% compared to the state average of 49.72%.
However, Srinagar is not likely to see similar numbers. In 2014, Srinagar saw a turnout of just around 25%. This dipped to a single figure – 7.13% – during the by-poll in 2017 which was triggered by the defection of sitting PDP MP to Congress.
While Ladakh will go to polls on May 6, Anantnag will see voting spread out over three phases. Only 28.84% of the voters in Anantnag cast their ballots in 2014.
The violence-stricken constituency has not been represented by a member of parliament since 2016. PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti won the seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but she resigned after taking over as chief minister.
Anantnag was scheduled to go for by-polls in 2017 along with Srinagar, but it was deferred due to violence. Since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani three years ago, the constituency has been seeing pro-separatist violence. It was also in the Pulwama district that the suicide bomb attack against the CRPF convoy on the highway took place on February 14.
Just after the announcement of the election schedule, security preparations in south Kashmir came under question due to a series of murders, including that of a woman special police officer.
Mufti is being challenged by state Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir and National Conference’s retired justice Hasnain Masoodi. While Anantnag is a traditional seat for her family, it remains to be seen if Mufti will be able to win due to disenchantment in the Valley over PDP’s previous alliance with the BJP to form the state government.
Ladakh, the largest parliamentary constituency in India in terms of area, will go to polls on May 6. BJP had won the constituency for the first time in 2014, but the sitting MP Thupstan Chhewang resigned from the party last November over “empty rhetoric” and “unfulfilled” promises.
The resignation was the second setback for the BJP after it failed to win even a single seat in Kargil and Leh civic bodies in the October 2018 polls. Congress won all 13 seats in Leh and six seats in Kargil.
Congress has nominated two-time chief executive councillor (CEC) of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Rigzin Spalbar to Ladakh. The current CEC of LAHDC Jamyang Tsering Namgyal submitted his nomination paper on April 16 accompanied by the Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju and BJP’s state-in-charge, Avinash Rai Khanna.
The constituencies going to vote on April 18 are Srinagar and Udhampur.