Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s release from 14-month-long detention on 13 October couldn’t have been better-timed — from the Bharatiya Janata Party standpoint. Look at how she has breathed fire into the BJP’s election campaign in Bihar, which earlier looked dispirited and hopelessly tethered to chief minister Nitish Kumar’s performance. The BJP may like to credit Prime Minister Narendra Modi for drawing her out by raking up Article 370 in his first Bihar rally on Friday. But even before him, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai had warned voters that terrorists from Kashmir would take shelter in Bihar if the Rashtriya Janata Dal wins the election.
But the BJP should also thank the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief, and fellow Kashmiri leaders in subsequent days, for responding on expected (and anticipated) lines. Article 370, ‘sedition’, ‘disrespect to Tricolour’, and nationalism have entered the Bihar poll debate, with BJP leaders lapping up everything that’s dished out by Kashmiri politicians from Srinagar.
Appointed president of People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a conglomeration of six Kashmiri parties for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 as it existed before 5 August 2019, former Jammu and Kashmir CM Farooq Abdullah thundered on Sunday: “It (PAGD) is anti-BJP, but not anti-national.” Well, BJP leaders wouldn’t lose sleep over it. If an alliance that was formed to work for the restoration of J&K’s special status calls itself anti-BJP, the ruling party wouldn’t ask for anything more or less. Its timing, too, couldn’t be better — at a time when the BJP needed to burnish and showcase its ‘nationalist’ credentials to beat anti-incumbency against the Nitish Kumar government.
What Mufti and Abdullahs gain from anti-BJPism
Responding to Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s assertion that Article 370 will not be restored, National Conference (NC) leader and former Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah said on Sunday that Prasad should “not presume to know” what the Supreme Court will decide on this matter. The top court is hearing a batch of petitions filed by the NC and others against the Narendra Modi government’s 2019 decision to revoke the erstwhile state’s special status. There lies the hope of Kashmiri parties and politicians. Although they have formed the PAGD, they must know that no amount of political agitation could force the Centre to reverse the abrogation of Article 370. What to speak of the BJP, when even the Congress, which has criticised and opposed the way the Modi government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, is not ready to commit itself to its restoration. The Jammu and Kashmir Congress stayed away from the first two meetings of the PAGD. Unless the Supreme Court decides, there is permanence to the 5 August 2019 decision.
The PAGD, as a matter of fact, is not about the restoration of J&K’s special status; it’s about the survival of Kashmiri politicians and their parties. It’s about their attempt to regain their political credibility and relevance. There was not a single protest in the Valley against the prolonged detention of three former CMs. Nor was there any sign of celebration when they were released. The people of Kashmir just looked the other way, leaving their politicians to fend for themselves. Kashmiri politicians must only hope that their anti-BJP rhetoric brings them some public sympathy and support.
Why Modi must engage Mufti and Abdullahs
Mainstream politicians of the Valley may look irrelevant today, but it’s high time PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah did a re-think about isolating them further. In his address to the nation, two days after Parliament had ratified the revocation of the special status, Modi had exhorted the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to “take charge”, because decades of family rule had not given them an opportunity to lead.
The Prime Minister’s reading of the people’s disenchantment with mainstream Kashmiri politicians was proved right in subsequent days and months. But his expectation of a new crop of leaders replacing the old doesn’t seem to be materialising on the ground. Modi had hailed the “historic turnout of 98 per cent” in the block development council (BDC) election last October, terming it as the “dawn of a new and youthful leadership across the regions”. Critics, however, pointed out that the electoral college comprised around 27,000 Panches and Sarpanches. It was no indication of the people’s acceptance of the Centre’s decision on Article 370, they said.
The Centre has now decided to set up district development councils (DDCs) in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, whose members will be directly elected by the people. The idea is to have an elected third tier of the panchayati raj institution, which can carry out development work. The Union Territory administration is also preparing to hold by-elections to fill up over 13,000 vacancies of Panches and Sarpanches. While these moves are meant to put in place structures at the grassroots level to ensure development, there are also expectations that the newly elected, in the process, would give rise to a new crop of leaders.
These moves by the Modi government have put Kashmir’s mainstream parties under pressure because they remain equivocal about their participation in these polls. But, it would be simplistic to believe that just because Kashmiris are disillusioned and upset with mainstream parties and leaders in the Valley, they will let bygones be bygones (over Article 370), and will join the Centre-initiated process to elect their alternatives.
A large number of Panches and Sarpanches have been holed up in Srinagar hotels and guest houses for fear of militant attacks.
Over 14 months after the scrapping of the special status, the sense of hurt and anger is palpable on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir. Not that many Kashmiris are convinced that the special status will be restored. There is an acute sense of insecurity and apprehension about the Centre’s possible moves, especially concerning their rights and identity amid speculation and rumours about probable attempts for a demographic change. The need of the hour is to reach out to them and address these apprehensions. No amount of assurance from New Delhi can convince them otherwise. The Centre needs an ally in the form of local political leadership to apply balm on their injured pride and take them into confidence about its development agenda. Developing an alternative political leadership in the Valley is an impractical and elusive goal. Modi and Shah must make the existing political setup stakeholders in this process.
The NC and the PDP may look irrelevant today, but people had placed trust in the same parties/ leaders in the past (the PDP since 1998). In the 2008 and 2014 assembly elections, over half of the Valley’s voters turned out to exercise their franchise —51.6 per cent and 56.5 per cent respectively. It was a big turnaround, given that the voter turnout in the Valley was 3.4 per cent in the 1989 assembly election, the first after militancy began, and 76.9 per cent in 1987, the last before it.
The voter turnout in the Valley, in the last Lok Sabha election, came down to 19.2 per cent in the wake of the failed PDP-BJP coalition experiment. If BJP leaders look convinced about the death of dynastic parties in the Valley, it could be because of their performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The NC and the PDP together could gather only around 3.64 lakh votes, with a combined vote share of around 10 per cent. But the BJP, as the PDP’s and also NC’s former partner, must share the blame (or take credit) for their lost credibility.
It’s time Modi and Shah re-looked at their Kashmir policy in terms of engaging with the local political leadership. Kashmiri parties are already struggling to regain their lost ground. Attempts to push them further to political fringes could compel them to take a harder line in a bid to win back their credibility. That’s the last thing PM Modi would want as he focuses on restoring normality in the Valley.
To this end, the first thing he needs to do is to advise his party colleagues to stop chest-thumping over the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, which only hampers the much-needed healing process in the Valley. They must let go of their political interest in the larger national interest. The Centre should then explore giving political stakeholders in the Valley a face-saver to go to the people, and convince them of the need to let bygones be bygones and start afresh.
Views are personal.