Starting the dialogue

IN A MOVE that looks more like a damage-control exercise, the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, has ``invited'' Dr. Farooq Abdullah for talks on the nationally sensitive, and contentious, issue of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. This precisely is the way the Centre ought to have responded, in the first instance, to the autonomy resolution the State Legislature had passed less than two weeks ago and followed it up with a much wider debate in Parliament and other high powered forums. Instead, the National Democratic Alliance regime summarily and unthinkingly rubbished the resolution - this was exactly what the Cabinet did, never mind Mr. Vajpayee's quibbling over the connotation of the terms, `rejection' and `not acceptable' - by harping on the `return to pre-1953 status' claim in spite of Dr. Abdullah stating on record that the cutoff year and other aspects of the autonomy package are indeed negotiable. The flip-flop in a way reflects the strains and conflict of interests inherent in a disparate grouping of the NDA variety. And palpable in the Prime Minister's latest initiative is an anxiety not to let the National Conference, deeply hurt as it was by the Centre's negative attitude to the State's emotive demand for autonomy, pull out of the coalition; the party's national executive was in fact seriously deliberating on that option. Mr. Vajpayee could not have had a better opportunity for making the appeasement move than the one that presented itself during his visit for the funeral of Begum Akbar Jehan, mother of Dr. Abdullah and chief patron of the party. It is unlikely that the NC executive, which has deferred its deliberations by a few days, will opt to break away from the ruling coalition at the Centre in the changed context. Dr. Abdullah himself, keen as he has been to avoid a showdown with the Centre which would have entailed his party's pulling out of the NDA, might well be feeling relieved, now that the dialogue route has been opened.

The political ramifications aside, the proposed talks between the Centre and the National Conference leadership constitute the crucial first step towards formulating an autonomy package for Jammu and Kashmir and the exercise should serve to set the basic parameters, besides identifying the sticky points in the scheme put forth by the State Autonomy Committee's report which the Legislature had endorsed. Obviously, there has to be a much wider debate, with participation by representatives of regional and subregional interests of the State, mainstream political parties of the country and so on, before the components of the package can be finalised. In fact, it may even be desirable, and worthwhile, to bring the secessionist All Party Hurriyat Conference also into the picture at some stage; after all, the Centre has of late been making subtle moves for opening a dialogue with the Hurriyat leadership in an effort to bring peace to the State. Going by the tenor of the official statement explaining the Cabinet's decision not to accept the autonomy resolution, there is a distinct attempt to set Jammu and Kashmir's case in the overall national context of greater devolution of powers on the States - and the term, `autonomy', is seen as a synonym for `secession' when used in relation to Kashmir. The BJP and its Sangh affiliates make no bones about their ideological `commitment' to the abrogation of Article 370 and their deep- seated antagonism has found a more strident articulation in the days since the passing of the autonomy resolution by the J&K Legislature, as evidenced by the contemptuous manner in which suggestions by a few of the non-BJP partners even faintly supportive of Kashmir's case have been dismissed. What needs to be recognised is that the accession of Kashmir to the Indian Union was in effect contingent upon the State being given a greater measure of autonomy is a settled historical fact. The Vajpayee regime will need to come out categorically on honouring this national commitment, if its claim to being bound by the coalition's common agenda, as distinguished from that of the BJP, means anything at all.