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American officials are keenly watching the political drama unfolding in Jammu and Kashmir, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party is running to claim the coveted prize of winning India's only Muslim-majority state.
They are aware that if the BJP successfully completes its most ambitious and audacious project or comes close to the prize, the signal that it is the new national party would be unmistakable. US diplomats have learnt a quick lesson after the national elections where their analysis was a little behind the curve.
But Kashmir also arouses worry in Washington-it is seen as a "flash point" between India and Pakistan, an ever-simmering flame that can spark a confrontation. Pakistani visitors never fail to whip up exactly those sentiments among Americans with exaggerated accounts of alleged Indian army excesses and the desire among Kashmiris for "azadi."
It so happens that Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's army chief, is currently on a six-day visit to the US, meeting officials at the Pentagon and the State Department. He has blamed India for the current spate of LOC firings, saying that his attention is being forcibly diverted from fighting terrorists on his eastern border.
But blaming India for Pakistan's self-inflicted wounds doesn't sell as well in Washington as it used to. The constant misinformation campaign on Kashmir - best exemplified by the unmasking of ISI-fronted Kashmiri American Council and ISI-funded Ghulam Nabi Fai in 2011 - has taken a heavy toll on the credibility of Pakistani claims.
US officials can see that the BJP is looming large on Kashmir this time with an effective strategy of making inroads over the past two years. But they are worried about BJP's stated desire to "debate," if not abolish Article 370, which gives the state a special status. Even though BJP leaders are trying hard to keep the 370 issue away from headlines this campaign season, the pot has been stirred.
The first phase of voting for the 87-member State Assembly begins Nov. 25 and political dynamics are fluid to pin down. Only two things are sure: that the BJP won't join the Congress in a coalition and that the two main regional rivals, the National Conference and the PDP won't join each other. All other combinations are possible, especially with smaller parties, many of which were created recently, playing an important.
They will be crucial in BJP's attempt to get the magic number of 44 since no matter how hard it tries; its appeal among Muslims in the valley is low. US analysts say that parties like the Kashmir Development Front, which has several former bureaucrats and academics, may be appealing to voters. KDF was created by Farooq Renzu Shah, who left the Congress Party saying he was disillusioned. Renzu, a bureaucrat who helped rebuild damaged shrines and big bridges when he was in government, is popular among the people.
US officials say they see no major problems in the execution of the elections and the theme of development in Kashmir is just what the doctor ordered. They don't see the streets erupting if the BJP forms the government. The meeting between Modi and former separatist leader, Sajjad Lone, was seen as an especially interesting development.
He cited two factors - the apology by the Indian army for the shooting of a teenager and a young man on Nov. 3 and the sentencing by a military court of five soldiers, including two officers, to life imprisonment for the staged killing of three Kashmiri civilians in the Machil sector in 2010. The rare developments have been welcomed by Kashmiris whose wounds are deep and feelings raw.
"It has helped greatly and the apology came after direct orders of the PMO not to fudge the issue. The people are happy that the army has been punished. People tell me that none of Modi's posters has been torn or defaced in the valley," says Sazawal, who regularly talks to people on the ground.
He marveled at the strategic insights of BJP managers - Amit Shah and Ram Madhav - in making the right moves and saying the right things. He cited BJP's state unit vice-president, Ramesh Arora's declaration that Sufi Islam would prosper under BJP. This is clever messaging to those Muslims who are tired of terrorism and want the peaceful version of their religion to return home.
The US government, struggling to contain the extreme strains of Islam as exemplified by ISIS, can hardly quarrel with promotion of Sufi Islam. Pakistan, the other player in the "dispute" doesn't raise confidence levels when it comes to dealing with or "managing" Wahabism, which it and Saudis have injected into India.
The views expressed in the above article are that Ms. Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist based in Washington D.C.