Prime Minister’s all-party meeting with the 14 political leaders of Jammu & Kashmir has distinguished the lines of divergence and meeting ground on the way forward. Divergences are many and are visible in the stances taken by all stakeholders in the meeting. Though, there appears to be a broader consensus on the need to look ahead and the key to that would be how this consensus emerges on the differences expressed by the attendees.
Mehbooba Mufti’s Rhetoric Remains the Same
Among the voices that have emerged from the all-party meeting, Mehbooba Mufti’s is perhaps the starkest and at rhetorical best. After the meeting, she unequivocally said the restoration of Article 370 and other special provisions enjoyed by the erstwhile state is a demand that her party will relentlessly pursue. Her insistence on starting a dialogue process with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir conflict has already got her rivals in BJP riled up.
Her position stems from a careful calculation of the electoral prospects of PDP, which appear diminished. Electorally and politically, Mehbooba Mufti has not much to lose. More so, the exodus of leaders from her party has set her on a long-term course of rebuilding the organisation from scratch. So, her hard-line stance, which resonates well with a significant section of the population in Kashmir valley, is the best option to ensure long term political gains and may not bring any immediate relief to the people.
Does Omar Abdullah See Himself as the CM of Future State of J&K?
On the other hand, a more realistic and nuanced position of Omar Abdullah comes with certainly achievable preconditions. The former chief minister’s insistence that the restoration of J&K’s special status will not come from the architects of its demolition is a pragmatic one.
If New Delhi wanted to restore the special status, why would they remove it in the first place?
At the same time, putting the matter to the courts does certainly open up an opportunity on a threadbare legal debate on whether the removal of J&K’s special status was constitutionally valid and necessary. It also remains the only avenue for restoration, if at all that is legally possible.
The nuance in Omar Abdullah’s position also opens up doors for an expedited restoration of statehood and assembly elections. An issue which his party can certainly negotiate with Delhi for forwarding movement of the political process. On the back of its performance in DDC polls, National Conference sees itself as a front runner in upcoming assembly elections and a claimant of the Chief Minister’s post albeit in a state at par with the rest of the states of India. Accepting partial statehood or contesting elections while Jammu & Kashmir remains a Union Territory will be a hard sell for the NC.
Congress, Like Sajad Lone, Has Realistic Goals in Sight
Sajad Lone and his People’s Conference also seem to have chalked up largely realistic goals. The PC sees an early restoration of statehood and assembly elections as immediate relief for the people of J&K from the wayward and self-perpetuating bureaucratic rule. Its position also comes with some demands which can be put in for negotiation – special protections for land and domicile rights.
Like the NC, the party realises that the current government with a hard-line ideological position on Article 370 would never walk back on Article 370 and thus sees Article 35A, in particular protection of land and domicile rights, as the real issue.
For all the differences that exist within the Congress party on J&K, at least its official position for restoration of statehood and early elections was in convergence with other political parties present at the meeting. Its demand for the protection of domicile and land rights also goes in consonance with the realistic stand taken by other valley-based parties.
What Does the BJP Want?
For the BJP, the timeline for restoration of statehood and the contours on the new state of J&K is a point of divergence from others. While other parties have sought reinstating the statehood before elections as the best course forward, the BJP, it appears, wants to use the statehood as a bargaining chip, perhaps to ensure the legitimacy of the delimitation process.
The BJP sees elections as a milestone for restoring statehood—a position in variance with the popular sentiment in both Kashmir and Jammu regions.
More importantly, it is pitched against a newly formed radical-right-wing socio-political organisation called Ikk Jutt Jammu, demanding a further bifurcation of J&K on religious lines. Talking to a national news channel, even the Chief of Apni party said that he sought a constitutional guarantee on reservations jobs and land rights.
At the same time, the BJP’s stance on land and domicile rights is not clear. Whether the central government can accommodate the demand raised by all non-BJP parties will remain a conflicting issue.
Delimitation & Dialogue: J&K Parties Still Want to Engage with Delhi
There is broad consensus among the attendees of the meeting that the way forward is through dialogue and reconciliation. Statehood and elections are seen by most stakeholders as necessary elements to bridge the trust deficit and divergences. The absence of criticism on the delimitation process is a major takeaway and an indication that non-BJP parties wish to continue the engagement with New Delhi. For the central government, it is imperative to ensure that there is political legitimacy to delimitation. That explains the hurry with which it chose to call the all-party meeting.
The other important outcome of the meeting is that the debate is settled on who is the real stakeholder in J&K. Modi government’s change of heart on engaging the valley-based political parties, which were not so long ago derided as “Gupkar Gang”, is driven by a reality check—that propping up political alternatives is not a cakewalk.
But the proof of the pudding lies in eating. This change of stance has to also reflect in the day-to-day dealings of the Lt Governor administration with the valley based-political activists particularly on their immediate concerns such as personal security and access to bureaucracy for resolving people’s issues.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Attempt to Salvage International Image
Although the Modi government continues to be adamant on its stated position on statehood and timeline for conducting elections, it will have to show flexibility to ensure the political process achieves its objectives.
For starters, yesterday’s meeting might come as a rescue to the government’s dwindling international reputation particularly on matters concerning democracy and civil rights. “Our democracy’s biggest strength is the ability to sit across a table and exchange views.” – a message tweeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the meeting, undoubtedly for international consumption.
(Khalid Shah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Khalid was previously associated with leading news channels of India and did a brief stint as a correspondent in Srinagar with WION News, reporting extensively on the conflict. He tweets @khalidbshah. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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