Modi faces Vajpayee test in Kashmir

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with other leaders during an election rally in Hazaribagh on Saturday.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium on Monday — his first election rally in the Kashmir Valley — will inevitably be compared to a path-breaking speech made at the same venue 11 years ago by the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is the most fondly remembered Indian leader here.

“Mr. Vajpayee ji did not offer us azadi [freedom], but for the first time, there was a willingness by New Delhi to discuss the issue,” recalled separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

“Mr. Vajpayee’s statesmanship was defined by his approach to Kashmir. For Modi, too, the only route to statesmanship is through Kashmir,” said Naeem Akhtar, leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), widely considered the front runner in the Assembly election. Against the shadow of a series of terror attacks in the valley, Mr. Modi’s task will be even more difficult.

Mr. Vajpayee summarised what he offered to Kashmir in a statement in the Lok Sabha in April 2003: “Issues can be resolved if we move forward guided by the three principles of Insaaniyat [humanism], Jamhooriyat [democracy] and Kashmiriyat [Kashmir’s age old legacy of amity].”

Mr. Modi has reiterated his government’s commitment to the “Vajpayee approach” to Kashmir, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told a gathering in Srinagar last week that strict action taken against the Army personnel involved in the shooting of innocent youths recently was proof of New Delhi’s humanitarian approach.

But the separatists, regional parties and the local media are unanimous that Mr. Modi’s actions are opposite to Mr. Vajpayee’s. “So far, there is no signal from Mr. Modi to indicate that he is following the path of Mr. Vajpayee. The Modi style of politics is only complicating the Kashmir problem,” Mr. Akhtar said.

There are three specific counts on which a cross section of Kashmiri opinion consider Mr. Modi different from Mr. Vajpayee: in keeping Pakistan off, in questioning the credibility of the regional mainstream parties, PDP and the National Conference, and in ignoring the separatist groups.

Mr. Vajpayee involved Pakistan, empowered regional players and engaged the separatists. “It was Mr. Vajpayee ji who facilitated our trip to Pakistan then. Now, we are being quarantined,” Mr. Farooq said.

Mr. Modi’s Kashmir policy is complicated by his ambition to create a footprint for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Valley. The BJP’s campaign in the valley is in the same format as elsewhere in the country — regional parties controlled by entrenched political families have not been honest to the people and the BJP can offer a better deal.

Added to this is a debate on Article 370 that the BJP wants to initiate and statements from BJP leaders suggesting a Hindu Chief Minister for Jammu and Kashmir. “The BJP campaign overlooks the specificities of the State,” Mr. Akhtar said.

The triumphalism that dominates reporting on Jammu and Kashmir election, highlighting the unprecedented turnout as an endorsement of New Delhi’s position and Kashmir’s abdication of other political aspirations, has put the regional parties which are participating in the election in a fix.

“Please don’t make a big issue out of the turnout. The Kashmir issue needs resolution separately,” PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti said. “Boycotting elections is a mistake. Equally big a mistake it would be to argue that everything is all right because people are voting,” said Sajjad Lone, leader of People’s Conference, a former separatist now friendly with the BJP.

With conflicting expectations from him to be tough on Pakistan and on separatism on the one hand, and to be accommodative and generous on the other, whatever Mr. Modi says on Monday will have a long-lasting impact on the politics of a region at the centre of a conflict between two nuclear powers.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 7:05:18 PM |

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