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J&K: Lal Singh's Last-Minute Entry Into the Fray Means a Tough Battle in Udhampur

Until a month ago, it was assumed that the Udhampur constituency would be a cakewalk for the BJP. But with controversial leader Choudhary Lal Singh returning to the Congress and being given a ticket, the game has changed.
Choudhary Lal Singh campaigning. Photo: X/@chlalsinghinc

Srinagar: Over 10 years after he left Congress, the return of Choudhary Lal Singh, a controversial and influential politician from the Dogra heartland of Jammu, to the grand old party and his subsequent nomination as the party’s candidate for the geographically extensive Udhampur parliamentary segment has changed electoral dynamics in the constituency and turned it into one of the most interesting electoral battles of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The controversial Lal Singh is locked in a neck-and-neck contest with Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), on the seat which also has a substantial Muslim population.

Fierce contest

Until a month ago, it was assumed that the Udhampur constituency would be a cakewalk for the BJP, given that its principal opponent in the Jammu region, the Congress, had become weak after suffering repeated electoral setbacks from 2014 onwards and several leaders deserted the party and joined the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP).

However, things have changed in the segment after Lal Singh, a three-time MLA and two-time MP, returned to the Congress after a gap of nearly one decade. Singh had quit the party in 2014 after he was denied a ticket in the Lok Sabha polls, and then was replaced with Ghulam Nabi Azad who ended up losing at the hands of Jitendra Singh by a margin of 60,000 votes.

In the past four weeks, Lal Singh’s aggressive style of campaigning is giving jitters to the BJP, which has maintained its grip on the segment since 2014.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The impressive turnout at Lal Singh’s rallies indicates that it won’t be easy for the BJP to retain the seat. On the other hand, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to ensure a hat-trick of wins on the seat, and has brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath to campaign for Jitendra.

While Jitendra is seeking votes on good governance and development, Lal Singh is tapping into resentment over the fallout of Article 370 being diluted for local populations. Instead of directly seeking restoration of Article 370, he has been calling for safeguards for Jammu and Kaskhmir natives under Article 371 of the Constitution of India – an issue that has also found significant takers among the Hindu population of the region.

“They have not only taken away our statehood but also special constitutional provisions and our exclusive rights over land and jobs. It is time to teach them a lesson,” Lal Singh has said.

The Congress candidate is also banking on the traditional vote bank of the National Conference, which has significant influence in Ramban, Doda and Kishtwar districts of the segment.

Both Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah campaigned for the Congress, with their opponents targeting them over this, citing Lal Singh’s support those accused in the rape and murder of eight-year-old tribal girl from Kathua in 2018. Lal Singh was then forced to resign from the Mehbooba Mufti-led government for participation in a rally in favour of the accused.

The most worrying factor for the Congress is the entry of te Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Democratic Progressive Azad Party in the contest, which many believe can cause a division of Muslim votes between the two parties.

Azad has fielded G.M. Saroori, his trusted lieutenant and former minister in the J&K government, with an eye on the Muslim vote bank in the Chenab Valley comprising Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban district. The seat has 32% Muslim population.

Jitendra Singh campaigning. Photo: X/@DrJitendraSingh

Talking to The Wire, senior journalist and political analyst Zafar Choudhary said that Udhampur seat is heading for a close contest between the BJP and Congress.

“It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Dr Jitendra Singh is facing the toughest electoral battle of his life. There is anti-incumbency against him but Congress also lacks a well-knitted organisational structure on the ground and election management skills,” he said.

He said “there are high chances of en-masse shifting of the NC vote bank to Congress party because BJP is their common political adversary”.

Redrawn Udhampur Lok Sabha

Spread over 18 assembly segments of five districts, the Udhampur Lok Sabha segment saw the addition of four new assembly seats during the delimitation exercise carried out by a three-member panel headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice (retired) Ranjana Desai.

During the delimitation process, Reasi district was removed from the Udhampur Lok Sabha segment and merged with the Jammu seat, but this didn’t affect the religious demography of the Lok Sabha seat.

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