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Has Azad’s plunge improved Congress fortunes in Udhampur?

By Sheikh Qayoom,

Udhampur : After union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad decided to stand from here, it is generally believed the Congress has an edge over its BJP rivals in the Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency.

Azad, a former chief minister of the state, is challenged by BJP’s national spokesman Jitender Singh, besides 12 other candidates from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Nationalist Panthers Party, BSP, Samajwadi Party, All J&K Kissan Mazdoor Party and independents.

The constituency, which has 1.41 million voters, is spread over six districts of Kathua, Doda, Ramban, Reasi, Udhampur and Kishtwar in the Jammu region of the state.

The majority of voters in this constituency are Hindus followed by the Muslim voters, including the tribal Gujjars and nomadic goatherds called the ‘Bakarwals’. Sikh voters are also present in this constituency.

There are 17 assembly constituencies in this Lok Sabha constituency, including Kishtwar and Inderwal in the Kishtwar district, Doda and Bhaderwah in Doda district, Ramban and Bannihal in Ramban district, Gulab Garh, Reasi and Gool Arnas in Reasi district, Udhampur, Chenani and Ram Nagar in Udhampur district and Bani, Basohli, Kathua, Billawar and Hira Nagar in Kathua district.

Out of these assembly constituencies, the Congress has eight MLAs, the BJP four, the regional National Conference (NC) two and the National Panthers Party has two MLAs in the 87-member state legislative assembly at present. An independent candidate represents Kathua assembly constituency.

Azad is the common candidate of the state’s ruling alliance partners, the NC and the Congress. Although he has been in the national and state politics for the last 34 years, this is the first Lok Sabha election Azad is fighting from Jammu and Kashmir.

He fought his first Lok Sabha election in 1980 as a Congress candidate from Washim in Maharashtra. He was re-elected from the same constituency in 1984.

Azad belongs to Bhalessa village of Doda district from which Kishtwar district was carved out in 2007, when Azad created eight new districts in the state during his tenure as chief minister from 2006 to 2008.

The Udhampur Lok Sabha seat was won in 1967, 1971 and 1977 by Karan Singh for the Congress. In 1980 and 1984 another Congress stalwart, G.L. Dogra, won from here.

In 1989, Dharmpal Sharma of the Congress won this seat.

BJP’s Chaman Lal Sharma won the seat thrice – 1996, 1998 and 1999.

The 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections from Udhampur were won by Chaudhary Lal Singh of the Congress, who has been replaced by Azad to fight the 2014 elections.

The Congress has strong pockets of influence in this constituency.

The Chenab Valley region comprising three districts of Kishtwar, Doda and Ramban is seen as the pocket burough of Azad who is believed to have done a lot of developmental work in these hilly and inaccessible far flung districts of the state.

BJP’s Jitender Singh told a March 26 rally, which was addressed by the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in Hira Nagar town of Kathua district, that howsoever strong his opponent might be, the BJP would emerge as a winner in Udhampur.

After the communal riots in Kishtwar last year and also due to the now commonly called the ‘Modi effect’, it is likely that voting could take place on highly polarized communal lines in this constituency.

Even if that happens, Azad’s goodwill among the Hindus of the constituency is expected to stand him in good stead.

Udhampur goes to vote April 17.

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