Modi's Hindu nationalists eye power in Kashmir

Modi's Hindu nationalists eye power in Kashmir
In this photograph taken on November 20, 2014, a supporter of Indian State Assembly election candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Avatar Singh looks on while wearing a mask of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Tral.

TRAL: As armed police in bullet-proof vests patrolled the tense streets of India's only Muslim majority state, Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Avatar Singh forecast victory for the Hindu nationalists in India-held Kashmir's upcoming elections.

"My godfather Modi Ji's development initiatives make me confident that I will win," Singh said, referring to India's new BJP prime minister while out canvassing in the town of Tral last Thursday.

Just hours later, three suspected separatist rebels were shot dead in a stark reminder of the tensions in the picturesque Himalayan region, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or for its merger with Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the violence.

So the idea of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP taking even a share of power in Kashmir would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.

But Modi's landslide May general election win and a meltdown in support for the incumbent chief minister after deadly floods in September have given the BJP hope of a breakthrough.

Separatist hardliners have called for boycott of the vote, a move that could play to the BJP's advantage.

Voting begins in the five-phase election on Tuesday, with results due on December 23.

Analysts say the BJP is almost certain to fall short of an outright majority in the 87-member assembly.

But they also say it has drawn up a strategy of military precision to mop up in the Hindu majority Jammu area, and then cut a deal with one of the smaller Muslim parties to become the lead player in a coalition.

The launch pad of Jammu

"Jammu is like a launching pad," said Mehmood-ur-Rashid, an analyst based in the main city Srinagar.

The BJP battleplan is "to sweep Jammu, and then cobble together some kind of a loose coalition with individual winners in Kashmir," he added.

Speculation is rife that the BJP will link up with the small People's Conference, a formerly pro-separatist party which now argues that economic growth is the best way of improving the lives of Kashmiris.

Its leader Sajjad Lone met Modi this month in Delhi, telling reporters he had felt "respected and humbled" by the talks.

The BJP is even fielding 32 Muslims candidates in the 70 seats it is contesting, including 25 in the restive Kashmir Valley.

The party won 11 seats in the last elections in 2008, its best ever performance.

The BJP is enjoying a honeymoon period after Modi's victory over the previously ruling Congress party, winning a string of state elections since May.

Singh, a member of Kashmir's small Sikh population, hopes to persuade voters that Modi's party is best placed to improve their livelihood by pointing to green shoots of recovery at national level.

Modi has made five visits to the state as premier, including during Divali last month when he promised more flood relief.

"We in the BJP consider Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as extremely close to our hearts," Interior Minister Rajnath Singh said at a rally last week.

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