The BJP has made an about-turn on Kashmir. In the process, it has discarded the Vajpayee-led initiatives of 2000 to address the issue.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the wheel has come full circle on Kashmir. Just six years ago, the party, then heading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), had vowed to address the issue of Kashmir within the framework of “humanity.” Now it has returned to the old rhetoric on Kashmir that appears tailored more to suit electoral exigencies.
In 2000, NDA Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, during a visit to Srinagar, came up with the imaginative and bold promise that the Centre would resolve the Kashmir issue, “insaniyat ke dairey mein,” or within the ambit of humanity. It was an important and attractive departure from New Delhi's previous position that the issue had to be resolved within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
During his tenure, Mr. Vajpayee took many steps that indicated that his was not an empty promise. He departed from traditional mechanisms in the government to deal with Kashmir. He also moved away from his party's traditional rhetoric of using the “iron hand” to contain trouble in Kashmir.
Dialogue with Pakistan
By opening a dialogue with Pakistan in 2000 he laid the foundation for a new phase of peace and reconciliation, which was considered a prerequisite for resolving the issue. At the height of the animosity between New Delhi and Islamabad, he even surprised his close associates by announcing “a fresh hand of friendship with Pakistan.” He did this from Srinagar on April 18, 2003.
That announcement came in the backdrop of heightened tensions along the border in the wake of the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001. Mr. Vajpayee's initiative to break the ice with Pakistan saw a fresh beginning in relations between the neighbours and brought new levels of peace in the Valley. A ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC), and confidence-building measures such as the launch of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, opened a new chapter of peace-making in the region.
The initiatives, duly approved by the NDA, led to a growing understanding on both sides. Many Kashmir-watchers are convinced that the process would have reached its culmination in the form of a resolution had not Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf got entangled in his own troubles at home.
Even the hawkish L.K. Advani, then the Deputy Prime Minister, could not remain aloof from the process. His meetings with Hurriyat Conference leaders in January and March of 2004, indicated a changing mindset in the BJP. And this change was for reconciliation, not confrontation. The BJP government's initiatives were popular in Kashmir: even today people in Kashmir count that phase as one of the best in the history of bruised relations between Srinagar and New Delhi.
But going by recent events, the BJP seems to have distanced itself completely from Mr. Vajapyee's carefully-fashioned Kashmir policy. A move being viewed with a growing sense of disquiet in Kashmir is the BJP's youth wing rally from Kolkata to Srinagar, flagged off on January 12 by BJP president Nitin Gadkari. The rally is to culminate in Lal Chowk on January 26 with the hoisting of the tricolour, recalling an identical tactic by the BJP in January 1992 under the leadership of Murli Manohar Joshi. On that Republic Day, militants intensified their attacks on the security forces in order to “send a message that hoisting the tricolour in this fashion would not mean conquering Kashmir for India.”
The BJP's plan has seen Chief Minister Omar Abdullah lash out at the party, accusing it of attempting to stoke more trouble in the State. “If the aim of the BJP is to set fire in Kashmir, please tell them to come. But if there're any repercussions, I will hold them personally responsible. Then they shouldn't blame me if there is fallout to the situation,” he said on January 5.
The Congress, his coalition ally, also accused the BJP of pursuing a policy of provocation. “This is the wrong way to do politics,” said Pradesh Congress Committee chief Saifuddin Soz. The leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Yasin Malik, also voiced opposition to the plan, as did many others.
The former BJP president, Rajnath Singh, has written to President Pratibha Patil that hoisting the tricolour is the right of every citizen of India and that it should be defended. While this is true, in the backdrop of the past summer's unrest in Kashmir, the BJP's move is seen as a deliberately provocative plan that could deepen the alienation of the people in the Valley as well as the communal divide in the State.
Setting the tone
The tone was set for the confrontationist policy last month when the top BJP leadership made it clear it had turned its back on the Vajpayee-led initiatives. On December 24, 2010, the top brass made a U-turn from the course set by Mr. Vajpayee. They warned the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government against considering any solution to Kashmir along the lines of autonomy, self-rule and a return to the pre-1953 position, let alone humanity. Led by party president Nitin Gadkari, leaders including Mr. Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad addressed an “Ekta Sankalp Rally” in Jammu. While on the one hand they vowed to ensure the unity of the State, on the other, they sought to stoke the flames of division along communal lines by raising the issue of “discrimination” against Jammu and Ladakh.
In the 2008 elections, as a fall out of the Amarnath land row, the BJP won 11 seats in the State Assembly, mostly in Jammu, Kathua and Samba districts, up from the single seat it got in the 2002 election.
The party's assertions about discrimination came at a time when the State Finance Commission (SFC) had concluded that Jammu, Kathua and Samba were among the top four districts in the State in terms of development. The commission had also found that Leh was a far more developed district than neighbouring Kargil. The SFC was formed by the Ghulam Nabi Azad government in 2007 to study the issue of alleged discrimination among regions.
What the BJP has now unveiled for Kashmir is in complete contrast to what it did while in power. The lone voice in the party to come out in defence of Mr. Vajpayee's Kashmir policy was Yashwant Sinha's, at a recent conference in New Delhi organised by the South Asia Free Media Association.
But on the whole, by reverting to a hawkish stand in pursuit of narrow vote bank politics, the BJP appears to have demolished its own contribution to a memorable phase of peace history between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. In the process, the party has ended up discrediting its own leaders.