Thursday, 4 April 2019

The divergent prescriptions for Kashmir

Reacting to a campaign remark by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah that Article 35A would be abrogated by 2020, Omar Abdullah called for bringing back the state’s high officials of the pre-1965 period, namely, a governor and chief minister equivalent called sadar-e-riyasat and wazir-e-azam respectively. At this, Prime Minister Modi sharply questioned in a campaign speech if there could be two prime ministers in one country.

The good part of the exchange is that Kashmir has been placed on the national election agenda, where it rightly belongs considering that the issue almost led to a war with Pakistan just a month ago.

It is unsurprising that there are two divergent positions on Kashmir. The positions contribute to delineating the two sides – the ruling party and its challenger coalition – from each other, and call for the voter to make an informed choice.

The Congress manifesto adds to the distinction. It promises a change of tack in Kashmir, countenancing a soft-line predicated on dialogue and reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The Congress has roped in general DS Hooda on whose watch the post Uri surgical strikes had taken place. So, its security pitch would be hard to dismiss outright.

While the BJP manifesto is yet to hit the stands, the party can be expected to be sensitive to its constituency south of the Pir Panjals. With assembly elections due at an indeterminate date after parliamentary polls, the BJP would likely have a placatory menu for supporters. It would also be mindful of the Kashmiri Pandits, who have been overlooked in the Congress manifesto.

The last time round, in late 2014, the BJP won assembly seats in southern J&K on the back of the Border Security Force heating up the international border (called working boundary by Pakistan) in fire assaults. An active Line of Control may work in the BJP’s favour in the elections.

The party pulled out of the coalition with the Valley-based People’s Democratic Alliance in the middle of last year, allegedly hoping to form a government with a new partner in Sajjad Lone’s two-member People’s Conference and break-away assembly members of the PDP.

The timeline was cognizant of national elections and the possibility of clubbing of the assembly poll after a spell of governor’s rule followed by president’s rule. The hiatus had the advantage of enabling the hard line to play out in Kashmir under central oversight.

Reportedly, Operation All Out accounted for over 250 militants last year, with some 42 killed this year. Arguably, the hard line created the conditions for the car bomb attack at Pulwama in February, resulting in uncertainty over whether the security situation over the coming summer would permit assembly elections.

The BJP would not be averse to this uncertainty since it hopes to gain political dividend nationally by appropriating the mantle of being “strong on defence”. It has already set the state agenda in outlawing the Jamaat-e-Islami and the J&K Liberation Front; separatists are also on the defensive because of National Investigation Agency lens on them.

While in 2014, the BJP manifesto was against the continuation of Article 370 – the bridge article linking J&K to the Union - it diluted this as the price for being part of the ruling coalition in Srinagar for the first time.

This time round, while the BJP will retain its traditional plank on the constitutional articles 370 and 35A, dating to its avatar as the Jan Sangh, it may not be strong enough to overturn these in a coalition. Article 35A by way of which state subjects are allowed some special privileges is currently under judicial scrutiny.

Understandably, the regional parties and the Congress prefer continuance of both Articles 371 and 35A. Leaders of both regional parties, the NC and PDP, have respectively sounded the alarm on any tinkering with the two articles that they aver are foundational to Kashmir’s linkage with the Union. A robust defence enables them to remain relevant in Kashmiri public opinion.

They have expressed mutual support in defence of autonomy, signified by their last minute bid to form an unlikely coalition in November last year that instead prompted the governor to dissolve the assembly.

They also unsurprisingly call for the roll back of the largely military template and a dialogue with separatists to politically address issues. Alongside, they prefer a cooling along the Line of Control, with the new central government talking to Pakistan.

In conclusion, the BJP hard line and its threat over Articles 370 and 35A would likely see a continuation of troubles, especially since the isolation of Pakistan would continue. Prime Minister Modi has hinted that the Balakot aerial strikes were a demonstration of readiness to deal with the consequences. On the other hand, the opposition plank has de-escalatory possibilities and potential to reverse the trend since 2016.

The strength of the coalition at the center – to be known only in end May - would dictate the efficacy of its conflict management and conflict resolution strategies.