BJP, Congress key players as Kashmir battle set to end

By Sheikh Qayoom,

Jammu : The fifth and final phase in Jammu and Kashmir’s assembly elections ends Saturday, with the Congress and the BJP locked in a do-or-die battle in the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

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An estimated 1.83 million people are eligible to exercise their franchise that day in 20 constituencies of Jammu, Kathua and Rajouri districts to bring the curtains down on the keenly watched electoral exercise.

Campaigning ended Thursday evening.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) making a determined push for power in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time, the Jammu outcome will be crucial to the party.

In the outgoing assembly, the BJP had 11 of the 20 seats, the Congress five and the National Conference three. The Peoples Democratic Party had one member.

This time, BJP leaders say, they are confident of sweeping the Jammu region.

The constituencies going to the polls Saturday are Bani, Basohli, Billawar, Kathua and Hiranagar in Kathua district, Nagrota, Gandhinagar, Jammu East, Jammu West, Bishnah, R.S. Pura, Suchetgarh, Akhnoor, Chhamb, Marh and Raipur Domana in Jammu district, and Rajouri, Darhal, Kalakote and Nowshera in Rajouri district.

A total of 213 candidates are in the fray. They include senior Congress leaders and ministers Sham Lal Sharma (Akhnoor), Raman Bhalla (Gandhinagar), Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand (Chhamb) and Manohar Lal Sharma (Billawar).

All the Congress leaders are seeking re-election.

Senior National Conference leader Ajay Sadhotra, who lost in 2008 from Marh, is fighting from the same constituency of Jammu district.

The Congress and the BJP, whose main political constituency lies in these three districts, are desperate to garner maximum voter support.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jammu thrice during the campaign.

The PDP and the National Conference have blamed each other for the ills plaguing the state, while targeting the Congress and the BJP for trying to erode the special status of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The BJP has accused the National Conference and the PDP of imposing dynastic rule on Kashmir, saying this has not allowed the state to progress economically.

The outcome of the fifth and final round of polling will largely determine whether the Congress or the BJP – among the two national parties – will play the dominant role in government formation.

It is widely believed that the assembly elections will deliver a hung house as no single political party is likely to get the simple majority of 44 seats in the 87-member assembly.

In a fractured mandate, it will be interesting to watch who amongst the four major parties – the National Conference, the PDP, the BJP and the Congress – will embrace whom to form a government.

In the outgoing assembly, the National Conference had 28 members, the PDP 21, the Congress 17 and the BJP 11 legislators.

The National Conference and the Congress have ruled the state in coalition after the 2008 elections.

A total of 2,366 polling stations have been set up for Saturday.

Eleven constituencies have polling stations close to the Line of Control and the international border that divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

An official told IANS that some of these may be shifted to interior areas if needed.

Polling starts at 8 a.m. and will end at 4 p.m. Saturday.

(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at [email protected])