SRINAGAR India (Reuters) - Accompanied by half a dozen guards, Hina Bhat knocks on doors in Srinagar, the heart of a revolt against Indian rule, to persuade Kashmiris to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in this month’s state election.
After winning the biggest national mandate in 30 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP has launched its most audacious election project yet - to win power in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir and integrate the disputed region fully into India.
It is Modi’s toughest test - his party has no base in the Kashmir Valley where it is seen as anti-Muslim. Even more of a red rag is the BJP’s long-held demand to abrogate the Himalayan region’s special status in the constitution.
Its aggressive posture toward Pakistan which also claims Kashmir is just as menacing to the people sandwiched between the two countries.
And yet, within weeks, Modi has shaken up an election race dominated by two regional groups and the Congress party. A former separatist leader, Sajjad Lone, met Modi this week and said the BJP leader could change Kashmir’s fortunes.
A poll on Tuesday said the BJP would win the most seats ever in Jammu and Kashmir but fall short of its goal of 44 in the 87-seat state assembly.
“There is only one mantra and that is development. The hunger for development in Kashmir is the same as the rest of country, if not more,” said BJP strategist Ram Madhav.
“We want a state government that can move shoulder-to-shoulder with Modi.”
Bhat, a dentist-turned-politician, offers voters exhausted by years of strife the vision that Modi promises to the rest of India - of “smart” cities and expressways.
To voters recovering from the worst floods in a century, those plans are a far cry from reality.
In September, the river Jhelum overflowed and flooded Srinagar, destroying homes and livelihoods, and fuelling anger against the state administration.
Two months on, people are still clearing up. The city - famed for the mountains that flank it and the houseboats on its mirror-calm lake - looks like a bomb hit it.
“You need a force to get things moving. In Modi we see that force,” Bhat says.
Hers is a tough act in a district where many voters heed calls by separatists to shun elections that they see as an attempt to legitimize Indian rule.
The BJP is banking on support in Hindu-dominated Jammu as well as in Buddhist Ladakh to pick up seats.
In the Kashmir Valley, the bone of contention between India and Pakistan, they hope to win over independents, engineer splits in regional parties and get Hindus who fled during the revolt to register and vote.
The Hindus are a minority in Kashmir but their votes become important if many Muslims boycott. The election begins on Nov. 25 and will be in stages, with results due in December.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference separatist alliance, sees the BJP’s ploy as cynical.
“Not only are they trying to win the election through default, they are trying to split Muslims into Shias and Sunnis - and even within Sunnis a further split,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”
At the same time, the government is silencing independent voices, he says. India canceled talks with Pakistan in August after a Hurriyat leader met Pakistan’s envoy to India.
“In the beginning we thought the BJP’s talk of taking power in Kashmir was rhetoric. But they are going about it systematically. At the very least, they want to be in a position where they will play a role in government,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, a Kashmir University politics professor.
Editing by Douglas Busvine and Robert Birsel