Recently, the newly appointed Union home minister, Amit Shah, made his first visit to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It garnered a lot of attention, with the people of the state and keen Kashmir-watchers eager for clues that would indicate how the new incumbent would handle the state compared to his immediate predecessor. I will resist the urge to dissect the visit because that has already been done many times over, and I doubt I will add any fresh insight into what is already in the public domain.
I will, however, seek to put down what I hope to see from the Narendra Modi government 2.0 in the context of J&K in the coming months.
I have made no secret of my disappointment with the way the state was handled between 2014 and 2019. The disastrous alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) pushed the state to the edge of an abyss that we continue to struggle to pull back from. The gutsy approach to Pakistan that we saw glimpses of — whether in the invitation to Nawaz Sharif for the oath taking ceremony in 2014 or the unannounced visit to Lahore to attend a Sharif family wedding — were not mirrored by similar ‘out of the box’ measures in J&K. The promises held out in the ‘Agenda of Alliance’, authored to facilitate the PDP-BJP alliance, remained on paper only, with not one meaningful step taken to convey any seriousness to implement it. To make matters worse, after the terrible summer of 2016, the then chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, lost the political space to extract any thing from the Modi government.
Fast-forward to today and a lot has changed. Prime Minister Modi has returned to office with a larger mandate and J&K no longer has an elected government. With the demise of the PDP-BJP alliance, the state has been under direct central rule since June 2018, and fresh assembly elections in the state are still a matter of heated speculation. This leads me to the expectations that I have from the central government.
First and foremost on my list would be early free and fair assembly polls in the state. It has already been more than a year since an elected dispensation handled the affairs of state in J&K. Simultaneous Parliament and assembly elections were being anticipated earlier in the year, but the absence of an adequate number of security force personnel was cited as the reason to delay the assembly elections. There was another window of opportunity that presented itself with elections possible between the end of the Parliamentary election and the beginning of the Amarnath Yatra. This was reportedly the preferred choice of the special election observers appointed to advise the Election Commission about assembly polls but this option was not exercised either. The next available opportunity will be later in the year when states like Maharashtra and Haryana go to the polls. My expectation would be that J&K joins these states so that we have an elected government in place before the end of the year.
It must be tempting for the BJP, and by extension the central government, to extend central rule in J&K as long as possible. It has been easier for the BJP to get part of its political agenda implemented through a handpicked political appointee to the post of governor in J&K. There are many examples, but I will quote two: granting of division status to the Ladakh and Kargil region, and taking reservation granted to people living along the Line of Control and extending it to people living along the International Border. Both these decisions have far-reaching consequences and should actually have been taken by a government mandated by the people to do so, not by individuals appointed by New Delhi. So my second expectation would be that the central government and its handpicked people in the state resist the urge to play politics. While taking care of day to day governance issues, the primary focus must be to create a conducive atmosphere for early elections, thus allowing the people to choose their representatives and their government.
Urban local bodies and panchayats are the third tier in our structure of representative governance. They each have their own role to play, and have their own importance in the grand scheme of things. They are not interchangeable and the absence of one cannot be made up for by the presence of the other two. Theoretically speaking, in the absence of an elected Parliament, the work of a Member of Parliament cannot be done by a municipal corporation member, or, for that matter, by a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA). Similarly in J&K, the vacuum created by the absence of elected MLAs cannot be filled by having meetings with panchayat members or by apportioning money to them in larger amounts than usual. Therefore, my third and last expectation would be that the Centre stop trying to fill the gap created by the delayed assembly polls by suggesting that the third tier can adequately fill the space. It can’t, because if it could, why would we need elected governments in the rest of India.
The rest of my expectations from the Modi government and from Amit Shah concerning the political nature of the problem in the state; the ongoing fight against violence and terror; the alienation of the youth in the Valley; balanced development for all regions and subregions are conversations to be had when I have a mandate from the people. And, for that, we need elections as soon as humanly possible.