India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party vowed on Monday to strip decades-old special rights from the people of occupied Kashmir, making an election promise that could provoke a backlash in the Muslim-majority area.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to retain power after a general election that starts on Thursday, though with a much smaller mandate, hit by concerns over a shortage of jobs and weak farm prices.
Pollsters say its re-election campaign got a boost from recent hostilities with Pakistan, after Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) reportedly claimed a February suicide bombing in Pulwama that killed 40 Indian security forces.
“Nationalism is our inspiration,” Modi said after releasing the BJP’s election manifesto at its headquarters in New Delhi, as supporters chanted “Modi, Modi”.
The BJP has consistently advocated an end to occupied Kashmir’s special constitutional status, which prevents outsiders from buying property there, arguing that such laws have hindered its 'integration' with the rest of India.
“We believe that Article 35A is an obstacle in the development of the state,” the party said, referring to a constitutional provision dating from 1954, and reiterated its long-held desire to abolish occupied Kashmir’s autonomous status by scrapping another law known as Article 370.
Read: Threat to Article 35-A
BJP supporters have demanded the removal, expressing anger at many Kashmiris’ resistance to rule by India. Kashmiris have been fighting Indian control of the region since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian rule.
“The BJP’s campaign is largely around nationalism, national security and this is what is getting echoed in their manifesto,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of thinktank the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Repeal would bring widespread unrest, Kashmiri political leaders warned.
“Let them do it and it will pave the way for our azadi,” Farooq Abdullah, president of Kashmir’s National Conference party, told an election rally, referring to freedom for the region. “They are wrong. We will fight against it.”
Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, the leader of a left party in Kashmir, warned of “disastrous and unimaginable repercussions”.
Voting in the general election begins on Thursday, but with about 900 million eligible voters, will be spread across several weeks, with ballots counted on May 23.
Increased investment, tax reform
In its manifesto last week, the main opposition Congress party pledged to create more jobs, hand money to India’s poorest and change a law on special powers for troops in occupied Kashmir.
It dismissed the BJP manifesto as anti-farmer, despite its pledge of a pension scheme for small and marginal farmers who make up more than 80 percent of India’s estimated 263 million farmers, with landholdings smaller than 2 hectares [5 acres].
“Remember the good old days before 2014 when Indians had jobs and a PM that didn’t lie to them,” Congress said on Twitter, with a hashtag calling the BJP manifesto a gimmick.
The BJP also promised capital investment of $1.44 trillion in infrastructure by 2024, to help create jobs for millions entering the workforce each year.
It pledged to simplify the goods and services tax, which disrupted businesses and hurt growth when Modi introduced it in 2017.
The party will work to cut tax and boost credit to small businesses to $14.4 billion by 2024, it added.