The last village on India’s International Border with Pakistan, Suchetgarh, has 300-odd houses. A Bharatiya Janata Party flag flutters atop each of these as far as the eye can see — but when it comes to actual support for the party, there is more beneath the surface.
With just days before the parliamentary constituency of Jammu goes to the polls, election fever and support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi is as palpable in the old “heritage city” part of Jammu as it is in the rural belt that forms the core of the Suchetgarh and R.S Pura Assembly constituencies located a few kilometres from Pakistan’s Sialkot.
The support, though, is seemingly restricted to Mr. Modi, and neither to the BJP nor its State leadership.
“Votes will be cast for nationalism, development, security, for action against whoever dares to threaten the safety of the people of India. My name is Mahender Lal Randhawa and I am a chaiwala like Modi,” Mr. Randhawa, who owns and operates a small tea-cum-confectionery shop on the road to Suchetgarh, declares.
The ‘Modi leher’ (wave) is the topic of discussion at Khana Chack’s former sarpanch Purshottam Lal’s modest supplies store over evening tea. “All the infrastructure projects in Jammu, everything has been done by him. This is a BJP village because of that and no other reason,” he says.
“No one in Jammu is voting for the BJP but for Modi,” Ratan Kumar, Mr. Lal’s neighbour, adds.
While residents of the Vivekanand Chowk in the heart of the old city swear by the infrastructural development, Mr. Modi’s electoral pitch of nationalism seems writ large on voters’ minds, especially in the rural belt.
Anger for what they term “empty threats of secession” emanating from the Kashmir valley, on the other hand, is a unifying factor across town.
“Modi hi hai aur Modi hi hona chahiye yahan se (‘It is Modi from here just like it should be’) ,” said Harish Sharma (name changed on request), a resident of Gumat, near the Jammu bus stand.
“I want you to tell politicians in the Valley that they are free to secede. This venom that they are spewing to get votes is condemnable; just imagine what they can do if they come to power,” he added.
Ram Krishan, an ex-Army havildar who resides at the Khana Chack village in R.S Pura, alleges that the Valley’s politicians are “suggesting secession” due to their “hunger” for power and property. “They are afraid not only of losing their assets but also the political capital which will disappear as their influence decreases,” he argues.
“There is a Modi wave, yes; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t support for candidates contesting on tickets from other parties. The Congress’ candidate, for example, is a local favourite in the upscale part of Gandhi Nagar because of his public connect. But how big of a match can he be for the Prime Minister’s will only be clear after the results,” said Rajan Singh, a taxi driver.
Predominantly agrarian Suchetgarh with its 1,000-odd registered voters, despite the BJP flags on each rooftop, is deeply divided across party lines and promises to “be a contest.” A lone Pakistan outpost looms in the distance, adjacent the Border Security Force forward post, separated by barbed wire on either side.
“The mood of the village is clear, is it not? Just look at the flags,” says Bodh Raj, a government employee. “Why just the roofs, look there,” says Sardari Lal, who has three sons serving in the Indian Army, as he points towards a BJP sticker on a motorcycle.
“There isn’t any shelling any more (from across the border); at least there hasn’t been the kind of shelling that happened after Pulwama and then the air strike. The flag is our mood,” claims Kanta Devi.
According to Bachan Singh, Pulwama and Balakot are certainly factors, but they are not “very big.” Others agree. “A university is being made, there is work on an AIIMS and there are infrastructure projects, yes; but the local BJP leadership does not deserve to be repeated,” Mr. Singh complains.
Raman Kumar alleges no BJP politician has visited the village, despite its proximity to the border, “for the last five years.” “Putting up party flags is one thing but support for the party is another. We would rather vote for people from other parties, some of whom have visited the village despite having lost elections, than those who have never shown us their face.”
The BJP has fielded Jugal Kishore Sharma and the Congress candidate is Raman Bhalla for the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency that goes to poll on April 11.