Jammu: A month before the fall of the Mehbooba Mufti government in June 2018, the Bhartiya Janta Party in Jammu and Kashmir got its youngest president in Ravinder Raina, a celibate RSS pracharak, an aggressive nationalist and proverbial child of controversy on arrival at the political scene.
In 2023, Jammu and Kashmir has entered its fifth year without legislature and political executive, even though there is no hint of the elections. As Ravinder Raina gets his third term as president of the Bhartiya Janta Party, he is also one of the last few links between the State and Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir who stand witness to the constitutional and political transition not just as onlookers but as key insiders.
Winning his first Assembly election in 2014, Raina, a firebrand and loud leader of 36 years, made his presence felt through a number of opportunities provided by the internal conflict stemming from the uneasy alliance of Bhartiya Janta Party with its ideological rival Peoples Democratic Party. From issues such as Mufti’s ‘thanks to Pakistan’ and the release of separatist leader Massarat Alam, Raina’s vitriolic reactions made him a darling of the news television which had just embarked on an unprecedented journey of shrillness.
When the Assembly of 2014 electors met for the first time for its budget session in 2015 in Jammu, Raina was a noticeable voice speaking in the language of opposition from the treasury benches. During the autumn session the same year in Srinagar, he took out a lone Tiranga march inside Secretariat and Assembly premises in Srinagar.
Weeks ahead of Eid in 2015 a controversy erupted over beef ban in Jammu and Kashmir. A BJP leader had gone to the court seeking directions for banning beef consumption, even as such had existed in Jammu and Kashmir for over a century and half. The unwanted renewal of controversy triggered widespread regressive reaction from Kashmir. Engineer Rashid, a controversial independent MLA, alleged hosted, what some called, a ‘beef party’ at the legislators’ hostel in Srinagar. Raina is believed to have physically roughed up MLA Rashid and his associates.
Following Mufti’s demise, when Mehbooba returned to alliance with BJP after three-month long controversial hiatus in April 2016, she had a keen desire to have Raina in her cabinet. Watching him closely for ten months during Mufti’s tenure, Mehbooba would know having Raina in the cabinet would nix a lot of daily controversies with the partner party. However, the BJP saw value in keep Raina on the loose.
Amit Shah appointed Ravinder Raina as party president right in the middle of massive controversy around the Kathua rape and murder case. Exactly a month before he took over as president, the BJP had removed Chowdhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga as Ministers, under Mehbooba’s pressure. Mehbooba had accused them of siding with alleged rapists in Kathua.
A month later, the BJP pulled the rug under Mehbooba’s feet on June19, 2018 as the party put Jammu and Kashmir, what came to be known later, a long journey of constitutional and political transition that is still going on, even as the August 5, 2019 was the high event.
Since the fall of Mehbooba government in 2018, Raina was the lone voice claiming imminent fall of Article 370 and 35-A. His statements were largely seen as mere provocations to the Kashmir based National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party leaders. Raina remained consistent.
Even as the BJP constituency in Jammu celebrated the fall of Mehbooba government, but in a few months the party began to come under the burden of expectations. Governor N.N. Vohra would yield very little space to the BJP. When Satya Pal Malik came as the new Governor in August 2019, Raina said ‘yeh apna banda hai, as he assured the party workers of intervention in their ever-growing issues and corresponding anxieties.
The BJP office gradually started becoming town’s notified spot of protests. Satya Pal Malik was good listener but his Chief Secretary B.V.R. Subrahmanyam didn’t give any access to the BJP leaders. Few months post August 2019, Jammu celebrated the fall of ‘special status’, but protestors with a range of issues were to soon return to the BJP office.
During Girish Chander Murmu’s time where was an informal coordination committee of BJP leaders, including Raina, Ashok Kaul, Sat Sharma, Sunil Sharma and Sunil Sethi, to liaise with the Raj Bhawan on governance-related matters. That provided a small window of relief to Raina as matter of party workers could be taken up with the government.
However, taking over as new Lieutenant Governor in August 2020, the old party stalwart Manoj Sinha would ensure that his administration is not seen as a proxy of the BJP. Sinha’s insulation of the government from the party brought heat back to the BJP headquarters where Rains has to do the firefighting.
With the size of the grievance growing, Raina has invented a strategy of siding with the protestors. There is a long list of who hits the streets outside BJP office. From endlessly protesting daily wagers to minority employees posted in Kashmir, Raina comes out to empathize with all, join their sit-ins but in absence of a government from his party it is very little that he can do.
Vajpayee’s protégé, from middle mountains
Known as an unabashed hardliner, Raina has turned into party’s secular face who connects easily with the minorities and marginalised social groups. He spends all aggressive energies against Pakistan but sounds polite and respectful even to BJP’s adversaries within Jammu Kashmir. He has publically extended respect to Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti even while criticizing policies of their parties.
Before joining ABVP and then BJP, Raina was into many things, including a stint with Indian Navy. He turned to politics after an interaction with Atal Behari Vajpayee who encouraged him to do so.
The initial influence of Vajpayee and his background in the middle mountains of Jammu and Kashmir provides Raina the right connection with regions and communities that were never part of BJP’s thought process.
Of the nine BJP presidents before Raina, five belonged to Jammu district, and two –Thakur Baldev Singh and Shamsher Singh Manhas –made Jammu their home. Daya Kishan Kotwal was the only outsider to the party of Jammu’s plains. Therefore, in 43 years since 1980, it was mainly Jammu city that provided BJP leadership for 27 years.
Raina is a Pahari-speaking person from Rajouri district who grew up in a mixed population with mixed ideas. With footsoldier stalwarts like Kuldeep Raj Gupta at the forefront, Rajouri district was always an ideological breeding ground for the BJP and the Sangh allies but it was only in Raina’s presidency that this region got prominence.
There are hundreds of his videos viral on the internet showing him engaging with the Gujjars and the Paharis not only in their language but also in their idiom. This connection has made BJP relatively popular in Rajouri and Poonch and also extended the influence to Baramulla and Kupwara districts. In central and south Kashmir, Raina’s entry points have been through the families of martyrs. He visits them, engages with them and through this process he reveals to them his respect for all sections of society.
Back in Jammu, Rains is open and accessible for 16 to 18 hours a day receiving bouquets and brickbats in equal measures.
Unique political circumstances of the last five years have turned a shrill Hindutva poster boy into a leader who represents the ideals of Vajpayee in the era of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah even as his vocal cords remain the same –high-pitched. He is the recipient of all heat and pressure against BJP, from BJP and everyone else as Jammu and Kashmir knows nothing about its next Assembly elections.
Presidents before Raina
When the Bhartiya Janta Party took its present and third avatar in 1980, Atal Behari Vajpayee was its first national president. It was also in the same year, the BJP got properly organised in Jammu and Kashmir with Thakur Baldev Singh as its first state president.
Thakur had rebelled against the BJP’s previous avatar to contest and win the 1977 Lok Sabha elections as independent candidate. Upon the formation of BJP, he returned to the party on Vajpayee’s insistence and became its first president, a position he held for nine years.
In 1989, Prof Chaman Lal Gupta, one of the only two BJP MLAs who won 1987 elections, was appointed the party president. Gupta held the position for five years and was replaced by Vaid Vishno Dutt, another veteran, in 1994. Dutt was later elected as an MLA in 1996 and also went to the Lok Sabha in 1988 and 1999. He passed away in 2011.
Daya Kishan Kotwal, a veteran leader from Bhaderwah, succeeded Vaid Vishno Dutt in 1996 and held the BJP state leadership till 2002. Kotwal also got a stint as a Member of the Legislative Council.
A young leader with ABVP background and belonging to the teaching community, Dr Nirmal Singh had replaced Kotwal as J&K BJP president in 2002. The previous year Singh had contested Lok Sabha election on Jammu-Poonch seat, vacated by the demise of Vishno Dutt, but he lost to Chowdhary Talib Hussain of the National Conference.
Nirmal Singh donned the BJP leadership for four years and was replaced by Ashok Khajuria, a veteran leader from Jammu city, in 2006. Khajuria held the presidency for four years and was subsequently succeeded by Shamsher Singh Manhas in 2012 for two years. Manhas was in 2015 elected to the Rajya Sabha.
Jugal Kishore, who had won as MLA for two subsequent terms since 2002, took over as J&K president in 2011 for a three-year term till 2015. He was subsequently elected to the Lok Sabha from Jammu-Poonch constituency in 2014 and 2019.
Sat Sharma, a Chartered Accountant and core party worker, took as BJP president in 2015 coinciding with the party’s first opportunity to power in Jammu and Kashmir. In April 2018, Sat was inducted in Mehbooba Mufti’s cabinet and subsequently, he was relieved from the post of party president in May. Ravinder Raina took over as new BJP chief on May 13, 2018, a post he continued to hold till this time.