On April 14, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chose the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stronghold in Udhampur for its first power show. It was led by senior local politician Balwant Singh Mankotia, who recently quit the Jammu and Kashmir’s Panthers’ Party to join the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP.
During his speech, Mankotia stuck to basics. “Political sloganeering has been used by political parties to deceive the public. Our message is clear: we are here to provide jobs, healthcare, education, and electricity. Only after people have access to these basic necessities we will discuss other issues,” he told NewsClick. In Jammu and Kashmir, Mankotia said, the party would take a different path than regional parties claiming that the region’s problems were political rather than governance-related.
He claimed that the party’s people-centric politics was the driving force behind him leaving the Panthers’ Party and joining the AAP. “The policies of the AAP have no hidden agendas, which is what drew me in, and it explains why so many people have come forward to support us here,” he said.
After Mankotia, several other leaders have joined the AAP, the most recent being former education minister Harsh Dev Singh, who joined on May 7 with scores of other Panthers Party workers.
Banking on its performance in Punjab, the party has created a buzz and is already winning the perception war in the Jammu region. However, its first goal is to establish itself as a formidable opposition in the region, which it believes is the essence of democracy and provides an alternative to divisive politics and violence.
AAP has used the BJP’s failure to deliver jobs, healthcare, education, and good governance in Jammu to reach out to the saffron party’s disillusioned supporters while showcasing their Delhi-style governance. But it is Kashmir and not Jammu where the party’s mettle will be tested.
AAP was the first opposition party to support the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370.
People in Kashmir were taken aback by AAP’s support for ending the state’s special status, which many say will be remembered by the voters in the valley.
Congress vs AAP
Political analysts feel AAP’s rise in Jammu can cause worry within the BJP.
“Since the 2015 elections, the BJP has enjoyed complete dominance in the Jammu region. All parties other than the BJP are politically and physically incapacitated in the Jammu region following the fall of the last elected government in 2018 and subsequent developments, including the reading down of the special status. AAP is expected to be a major challenger to the BJP, with plans to encroach on its voter base,” senior journalist and commentator, Zafar Chowdary told NewsClick.
According to experts, AAP’s success graph across India indicates that they made progress in areas where the Congress was declining. Because Congress was once a major force in Jammu and still has some support there, it may be advantageous for the AAP to gain support there. “AAP has taken over Congress wherever it has made an impact,” noted political analyst Professor Noor Mohammad Baba told NewsClick. “It could have an impact in Jammu where Congress was once a major player,” he added.
He continued that Jammu has been rallying behind the BJP for some time, but there is also some resentment, which could give AAP some room there. “There is some division in Jammu dominated by the BJP. Jammu has been rallying for the BJP for some time, but there has also been some resentment in Jammu, so they can find a niche there,” he said.
The Congress supporters believe that AAP’s alternate governance model may not work in Jammu and Kashmir because the region’s core issues have always been political in nature, influencing the politics of the entire country, if not all of South Asia. “Ignoring the region’s political aspects and concentrating on development may not be the best strategy for them (AAP). The Congress remains a formidable force in the region, but it must set its priorities correctly in order to play a leading role in the opposition,” Vikas Badhori, Vice President of National Students Union of India (NSUI), Jammu University, told NewsClick.
Badhori continued that AAP caused a stir for a time, but its popularity is ebbing due to its ambiguous position on Article 370, in contrast to Congress, which has been clear about it from the start, implying that Congress remains the region’s major opposition. “In contrast to Punjab and Delhi, the AAP has relied on leaders who have been rejected by other parties,” he said, referring to AAP’s leadership in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to AAP’s IT head for Jammu and Kashmir, Harpreet Singh, the party is more concerned about its relationship with the people. “We have started by holding meetings in BJP strongholds like Akhnoor, Samba, and Kathua. And we are not doing it on our own; the people who invite us to those areas are the ones who organise these gatherings,” he said.
The BJP has been dividing the country along religious lines and trying to fit one region into another, but we have nothing to do with religion and instead focus on regional development while allowing people to practice their faith, Singh added. “The BJP is playing with people’s emotions and treating them like puppets in the region,” he said.
The party was deliberately not going into polarising issues, he explained. “We do not believe it is the right time to initiate those discussions,” he said. Unlike other parties, Singh said, AAP was not selling unattainable dreams. “People are looking at our Delhi and Punjab models and making their own decisions,” he added.
Difficulties with Kashmir
Experts believe that capturing the imagination of politically hurt Kashmiris will be difficult for the AAP and the party’s future will be determined by how the valley’s politics play out once it breaks the graveyard silence and becomes politically charged.
“The Muslim constituency in Jammu and Kashmir is hurt politically, and it is too little for them to support AAP. In addition, the AAP carries some baggage in that it supported the repeal of Article 370 and largely follows the BJP in terms of soft Hindutva,” Professor Gul Mohammad Wani, head of the political science department at Kashmir University, told NewsClick.
As the past experience suggests, the valley’s political response will shape how Jammu reacts. “People in Jammu may return to the BJP if people in the valley support the Gupkar alliance or its leaders,” Prof Wani says.
That the party has failed to attract a key leader from the union territory is likely to cost its prospects in the region. “AAP has largely chosen left-over leaders from the valley because all of the valley’s floating leaders have been absorbed by other political parties,” Wani added.
At the same time, the party has so far had little impact on the locals’ imaginations, and they see the party as “just another political party that has shown no concern for the emotions of the Kashmiris.”
“It is just another political party out to win elections and has nothing to do with our aspirations. The BJP is better than this because they take a clear illogical stance and give people the option of supporting or rejecting it,” a law student from South Kashmir told NewsClick, requesting anonymity.
The party’s ideological outlook is perplexing, and it has never spoken out against injustices against minorities in these areas. “They are promoting their soft Hindutva image to appeal to the majority. AAP might help the BJP to root out the Congress from the region," the student said.