Political setting right in Kashmir

NEW DELHI OCT.31. The political setting was never so conducive as is the case now for initiatives to address the domestic aspect of the Kashmir problem. The task involves (1) a dialogue among the Centre, the chosen representatives of Jammu and Kashmir and other elements and (2) measures by the new State Government to tackle people's alienation. What held up these processes in the past was the hesitation of the Central Government, on the one hand, and lack of political will on the part of those in power in the State, on the other.

At the Centre, the rulers of the day, irrespective of their political complexion, were worried that the Opposition would exploit official moves for partisan ends. Now both the BJP, which heads the coalition at the Centre, and the Congress, which will be a major force in the new dispensation in Srinagar, have joint stakes in the steps for resolving the Kashmir problem, both in the domestic and external contexts. As for the State level, the parties which are to form the new government have spelt out their priorities clearly in their Common Minimum Programme.

The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, showed unusual courage and sagacity in agreeing to have Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, head of the PDP, as the Chief Minister of the coalition with her party. She was guided mainly by national interests rather than party-centric considerations. Such a spirit, if emulated by others, will augur well in tackling the challenge of Kashmir.

The joint stake of the mainstream formations in a new beginning is no small gain, considering the developments in the past. The Congress, the ruler at the Centre for years, had to factor into its strategy the conduct of the BJP (and earlier of the Jan Sangh). The fear of the Opposition spreading misunderstanding was there all the while. There were, no doubt, exceptions to that rule. In 1972, for instance, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of the day, went ahead with the Shimla Agreement despite strong opposition by the Jan Sangh. On behalf of this party, Atal Behari Vajpayee led a torchlight procession in New Delhi in protest against the agreement when it was signed. Ironically, he, in his capacity as the External Affairs Minister later in the Janata Party Government, swore by the Shimla Agreement and defended it during his visit to Pakistan in 1978. When reminded of his past stand at a press conference by a Pakistani journalist, he said: "I then belonged to the Jan Sangh which was opposed to the agreement. That party has been dissolved. Now I am part of the Janata Party Government which supports the accord.''

In the past four years, the BJP-led coalition found its style cramped for fear of exploitation of any initiative by the Congress. Here, too, there were exceptions — notably, Mr. Vajpayee's bus journey to Lahore in early 1999, on which the Congress made no secret of its reservations. Later, when the Lahore initiatives was scuttled by Kargil, the Congress felt vindicated.

Hopefully, the fear of such partisan misuse will not be there now. However, one can't be sure of a section of the Sangh Parivar. The hardliners there had been averse to moves for increased autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, or even to talks with separatists. Their views could well be transmitted to the decision-taking level by important members of the Union Cabinet. With courage on the part of Mr. Vajpayee, such obstructions could be removed from the path of sanity and conciliation.

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