Kashmiris turn out to vote as BJP bids for power

GANDERBAL - Voters lined up at polling stations in Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday, ignoring a boycott call by separatists, to elect an assembly that the ruling nationalists are hoping to take control of for the first time.

Parliamentary elections in Jammu and Kashmir, disputed between India and Pakistan, are usually marked by the country's lowest turn-out and heavy militant violence, exacerbating tensions in a region where tens of thousands have died in a 25-year revolt.

But on Tuesday, voters in 15 constituencies that went to the poll in the first phase of a staggered process stood in long queues to cast their choice from among a clutch of parties including Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

Some said they had come out to vote in the hope that there would be development in a region held back by years of strife and a devastating flood this year that destroyed homes and livelihoods.

Others said they were wary of the BJP and its bid to seize power in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir that has enjoyed a special status in the Indian constitution since the Himalayan region was divided in the Partition of 1947.

"We are coming out in large numbers to vote to block the Modi wave. We feel they will erode the special status of Kashmir and change the demography of the State as BJP is working on secret agenda," said Maroof Ahmad, 22, in Ganderbal constituency where nearly a third of voters had cast their vote by midmorning.

The BJP has little presence in the Kashmir Valley, but emboldened by Modi's stunning victory in national elections earlier this year, it is hoping to pick most seats from the Hindu-dominated Jammu and Buddhist Ladakh parts of the state.

In the Kashmir Valley, the bone of contention between India and Pakistan, Modi's party is hoping to win over independents, engineer splits in regional parties and get Hindus who fled during the revolt to register and vote.

"The time is ripe for political change here," Modi told a rally at the weekend, promising to turn a region of snow-clad mountains and gushing streams into a top tourist destination.

Pakistan controls a third of the Himalayan region and has repeatedly called for talks to resolve the 67-year-old dispute over the territory.

More parts of Jammu and Kashmir will go to the polls in the next several weeks and the result will be declared on Dec. 23.