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NEW DELHI: India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is not contesting elections in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir for the first time in nearly three decades, as voting in the latest round of the national polls got underway on Monday.

The world’s most populous country began voting on April 19 in a seven-phase election that is scheduled to take place over six weeks, with ballots set to be counted on June 4.

India has 968 million people eligible to vote in the general election, where incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP are aiming for a rare third consecutive term in power.

Monday’s voting involved 96 constituencies in the fourth round of polling.

While the BJP, which has been in power since 2014, and its allies are contesting every other part of India as they look to secure a majority of the 543 parliamentary seats, the party is sitting out in the northern Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

This year marks the region’s first election since Modi’s government stripped the valley of its special autonomous status and statehood — which was granted by the Indian Constitution — on Aug. 5, 2019. The move unilaterally revoked the relevant provisions under Article 370, scrapping Kashmir’s flag, legislature, protections on land ownership and fundamental rights, sparking fears of demographic engineering in the region.

“It’s really surprising that the BJP, which claimed to have over 800,000 cadres in the valley, failed to find a single candidate. It shows that the BJP is not popular in the valley,” Sanjay Tickoo, the Srinagar-based leader of the Hindu minority group Kashmiri Pandit, told Arab News.

“I am expecting a record turnout to show the central government what (they) have done to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. This is the reflection of anger … no one is happy in the valley after the abrogation of Article 370.”

Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir is part of the larger Kashmiri territory, which has been the subject of international dispute since the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and rule in part.

Modi said his government had been focusing on jobs and development as part of an effort to end violence in the valley, which has for decades witnessed outbreaks of separatist insurgencies to resist control from the government in New Delhi.

But after the BJP lost Kashmir’s three seats in the 2019 election, the party’s popularity slid further after it revoked the region’s autonomous status later the same year and subsequently imposed months of strict communication blockade and jailed hundreds of political leaders.

“The vote expresses not only anger but also apprehension against the anti-Muslim rants that have been going on as well as whatever they have done in Kashmir,” Professor Sheikh Showkat, a Srinagar-based political analyst, told Arab News.

Altaf Thakur, BJP spokesperson in Kashmir, said the party was still taking part in the Kashmir polls by supporting other regional parties.

“It is not correct to say that we are not fighting the election, we are playing the role of kingmaker and whichever way the cadres of the BJP will go, we will win,” he told Arab News.

“It’s not important whether we stand in the elections or not, the important thing is that we have to defeat the dynasty rulers,” he said, referring to the main contenders in the Kashmir polls, the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party.

While they are fighting each other in the valley, both parties have said they oppose the BJP and are part of the Congress party-led opposition alliance, known as India.

For some Kashmiri voters, Monday’s vote was about speaking up for themselves.

“The BJP knew that they cannot tolerate the wrath of the people of Kashmir. They fled the contest without a fight,” Aijaz Ahmed, a businessman from Srinagar, told Arab News.

“I voted today because it gave me an opportunity to express myself and tell the government in Delhi that you cannot keep us silenced. We want an atmosphere without fear and a region where our own identity is not questioned.”

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