NEW DELHI: India's Hindu nationalist ruling party vowed on Monday (Apr 8) to strip decades-old special rights from the people of Jammu and Kashmir, making an election promise that provoked warnings of a backlash in the country's only Muslim-majority state.
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.
It pledged to spend 100 trillion rupees (US$1.44 trillion) on infrastructure in the next five years, to help create jobs for the millions entering the workforce each year.
Pollsters say the BJP's re-election bid got a boost from recent hostilities with arch-rival Pakistan, after a militant group based there claimed a February suicide bombing that killed 40 Indian security forces in the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
"Nationalism is our inspiration, economic development of the poor and backward sections our philosophy, and good governance our mantra," Modi said after releasing the election manifesto at BJP headquarters in New Delhi, as supporters chanted "Modi, Modi".
The BJP has consistently advocated an end to 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.
"In the last five years, we have made all necessary efforts to ensure peace in Jammu and Kashmir through decisive actions and a firm policy," it said in the manifesto.
"We are committed to overcome all obstacles in the way of development and provide adequate financial resources to all the regions of the state."
The party also reiterated its long-held desire to abolish Kashmir's autonomous status.
BJP supporters have sought the removal, expressing anger at many Kashmiris' resistance to rule by India, which, for three decades, has battled an armed insurgency in the region also claimed by Pakistan.
"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.
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 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.
"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 pledged to simplify the goods and services tax, which disrupted businesses and hurt growth when Modi introduced it in 2017. It will also work to cut tax and boost credit to small businesses to 1 trillion rupees by 2024.