India's ruling Hindu nationalists make Kashmir poll gains

SRINAGAR, India - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party made significant gains in the restive Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday, December 23, extending its grip on the country after a landslide general election victory in May.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more than doubled its seats in the 87-member state parliament and was for the first time in with a real chance of being part of the next coalition government.

With 25 seats, the BJP is now the second largest force in the state parliament after the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) - a feat unthinkable just a year ago.

That is still well short of its stated goal of wresting power on its own in the disputed Himalayan region, where rebel groups have been fighting Indian rule since 1989.

The PDP, part of a coalition that ruled the state during a period of relative peace between 2002 and 2008, is likely to form the next government in coalition with other groups.

Both the BJP and the PDP benefited from widespread public discontent over the state's ruling National Conference party's handling of devastating September floods that killed over 200 people in Kashmir. 

Votes were still being counted in the insurgency-racked and impoverished central state of Jharkhand, which had also held elections, with the BJP on course to win a majority.

Party president Amit Shah hailed a "year of unprecedented poll success for the BJP", which ousted the former ruling Congress party earlier this year.

He said the party was keeping its options open in Kashmir 

"The BJP has emerged as a relevant political force in the state. We have kept all our options open as of now," he told reporters in New Delhi.

"We can form the government, support a government or take support."

High turnout

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti said her party "will deliberate on what would be the best combination for accommodating people's aspirations."

Analysts said it may be difficult for her party to partner with the BJP. 

Modi was accused of failing to curb 2002 anti-Muslim riots that claimed at least 1,000 lives when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, a charge he has always rejected.

"If the PDP now chooses to go with the BJP it would be read as a huge betrayal in the Kashmir valley," said analyst and political commentator Siddiq Wahid.

"The result confirms that BJP succeeded in polarising the electorate. The process of government formation is going to be difficult one now," Wahid added.  

All BJP's gains in the month-long staggered polls came in the mainly Hindu Jammu area. The PDP dominated in the overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir Valley, where the Hindu nationalists failed to win a single seat.

Hina Bhat, a photogenic Muslim woman who became the face of the BJP during the elections, failed to win her seat in the region's main city of Srinagar

The BJP had campaigned aggressively in the picturesque region, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has been the scene of two wars between the neighbours. 

Modi held a series of rallies promising to bring much-needed economic development after decades of unrest and urging people to turn out and vote.

Kashmir state elections have been subject to boycotts in the past, but this year saw the highest turnout in over two decades at 65%.

The BJP ran a high-powered media campaign, fielded 32 Muslim candidates and sidelined a long-standing pledge to scrap Article 370, a constitutional provision that grants Kashmir special status in India and allows it to make its own laws.

The Congress party, which was a coalition partner in the outgoing state government led by chief minister Omar Abdullah, won 12 seats, while the National Conference took 15. -