Monday, 1 November 2021

There’s a political opportunity in Kashmir. Will the Centre grab it?


Tweaking the ‘chronology’ opens up a political opportunity in Kashmir

During his recent visit to Kashmir, the home minister repeated his chronology on reversion to statehood of the union territory: delimitation and elections followed by statehood. However, reversing the order of the latter two can potentially renew the social contract, frayed since 1987, with Kashmiris.

The home minister’s visit set the stage for this best case scenario for the BJP. Apprehensions are that the ongoing delimitation exercise is to empower the Jammu belt, thereby enabling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stronger south of the Pir Panjals, take power for the first time in Srinagar. Statehood would be the incentive for ruling party-inclined voters, a promise easier met if the ruling party at the Center and the state are the same.

However, a political party view but one viewed through a parochial lens, in this case a right wing, ideological one. A national problem area as Kashmir should not be subject to a partisan approach. It needs leavening with input from governmental institutions involved to enhance the options, including other options.

To be sure, the delimitation does not by itself indicate that the chronology is a done deal. There has been no indication from the level of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) that alone can rule on a national issue as this. 

The last time the chronology was aired was at an all-party meeting this June chaired by the prime minister. Other political parties were against the chronology since they lacked confidence that statehood would be conferred in case a party or coalition other than the ruling party wins. The Center could renege. 

What this suggests is that elections on the heels of delimitation may not see active popular participation, particularly in Kashmir. Therefore, even if the BJP does come to power with a virtual walkover, it would not be a victory for democracy, but would be pyrrhic.

This needs pointing out by the national security establishment. It has long engaged with the Kashmir issue in light of its mandate to return stability in Kashmir. It has the institutional memory and analytical heft to discern the security implications by deploying its scenario building expertise to assess the options.

There are essentially three scenarios.

The first is status quo. As seen from the recent spike in violence, a seeming trajectory towards peace is subject to sudden reverses and geopolitical eddies, such as from the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul.

The second scenario is elevation of the union territory (UT) prior to the elections can be galvanizing. Elections to a state assembly rather than a UT one can potentially prove an inflexion point. It will be a vote of confidence in Kashmiris, interpreting their beloved term, ‘azadi’, to mean availing themselves of democratic freedoms.

Alternatively, and lastly, persisting with the chronology could lend ballast and longevity to the insurgency. Kashmiri disaffection could deepen with another opportunity for political ministration passed up. The recent controversy over Kashmiris cheering for the Pakistani cricket team is telling on levels of alienation.

The third scenario would imply continuing of the hard-line, though its limitations are obvious after six years of its implementation. It cannot serve indefinitely as substitute for political action. It can at best create conditions for adoption of a political approach predicated on political judgment and risk taking.

Of the three options, national security institutions must live up to their duty by being forthright with the political principal. While recommending an option may be out of their remit, they could emulate former President Abdul Kalam.

Raj Chengappa in his book, Weapons of Peace (p. 38), recounts that when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao at the fag end of his tenure was dallying over the nuclear test, scientific adviser, APJ Abdul Kalam, soto voce suggested that testing might have ‘political benefits’ for Rao. Congress was not quite on a particularly strong wicket in the elections that were soon to follow. In the event, Kalam was wrapped on the knuckles for his pains by Rao for stepping out of his domain of expertise and charter.

Taking cue, national security minders could perhaps step out of the straight and narrow and assay their national obligation. They must emphasise that on national security issues, political interests are not a determining criteria.

They must gently nudge decision makers towards the second scenario here – statehood preceding elections. They can soto voce point out that come 2024, quietude in Kashmir may bring unforeseen political dividend and perhaps a Nobel peace prize. Doing so is worth a wrap on the knuckles.