Why a Muslim woman is BJP's face in Kashmir

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Hina Bhat (C), a candidate for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during her door to door campaign for upcoming assembly election, on the outskirts of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, 16 November 2014Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Hina Bhat (centre) is a Kashmiri Muslim standing for the Hindu nationalist BJP

In Srinagar's Amira Kadal neighbourhood, a young woman dressed in black with a headscarf is rapping on people's doors.

People gather in the narrow lanes of the congested neighbourhood, others peer out of windows - women gather around her, some stroking her cheek and others embracing her.

The young woman is Hina Bhat - a candidate for the five-phase elections in Jammu and Kashmir which begin on Tuesday - who is attracting disproportionate attention in the polls in the Muslim majority state which is disputed between India and Pakistan.

That's because she is a Kashmiri Muslim who has been fielded by the Hindu nationalist BJP, India's governing party.

The BJP has never been a serious player in Kashmiri politics - it has a non-existent base in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley given its hardline views on the state's tenuous relationship with India.

But under India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in the May general elections, the BJP is making an audacious bid to capture Jammu and Kashmir.

"What Kashmiris really need is development. And that is what Mr Modi offers," says Ms Bhat as she hurries through the lane, supporters and security men in tow.

"Our youth are frustrated - there are no jobs, no opportunities. We aim to change that."

Fragile relationship

In the valley at least, it's a threadbare campaign. There are a handful of party flags visible, mostly of the two regional parties that dominate local politics - the governing National Conference and the opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP).

But the BJP is attracting interest and also, unusual support.

Sajjad Lone is a former separatist leader who is contesting the election from his family stronghold of Kupwara, a rural hamlet once a hotbed of militants and quite close to the Line of Control, the ceasefire line which divides Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Earlier this month, Mr Lone met Narendra Modi in Delhi leading to speculation that the two could come to an understanding if the BJP was close to the 44 seats it would need for an outright majority in the 87-member state assembly.

And while some hardline separatists, like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, are concerned about a possible BJP win, others argue that it is not likely to change anything significantly.

"We believe that Kashmiri governments have little power since everything is controlled by Delhi," says moderate separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

"We might as well deal directly with a national party like the BJP."

Image source, AFP
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There is little visible enthusiasm for the elections

But on the streets of Srinagar, there is little visible enthusiasm for the election itself, let alone the BJP or other parties.

The city is only just recovering from devastating floods of September. The water level in the central Lal Chowk area had reached up to the first level of the buildings there and even though it has now receded, the damage is plainly visible.

"We have hardly got any compensation from the government," says a shopowner who refuses to give me his name.

"My shop was damaged, my stocks destroyed. It's going to take me months to recover. Who cares about the elections."

Many others concur, saying that a new government will not change anything on the ground for Kashmiris, especially when it comes to issues such as the role and presence of the Indian security forces and the powerful laws under which they operate with immunity.

Earlier this month, two Kashmiri teenagers were shot dead by army troops, who fired on their car at a checkpoint.

In a rare admission, the army accepted that it had shot the boys by mistake.

But that is little comfort for Mohammad Yusuf Bhat, whose 13-year-old son Burhan was one of those killed.

"All he had on him was books, no guns, no bombs. And they shot him," he says.

"If Kashmiris are not safe travelling on the roads, then what's the point of making grand promises of building new roads and bridges?"