For a man used to seeing large fawning and curious crowds, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will face the prospect of being greeted by mostly empty streets in Kashmir today. Mr Modi first heads to Katra, via Jammu, where he will flag off the new Katra-Udhampur railway link. He then heads to Srinagar
for meetings and security briefings and then onward to Uri, close to the Line of Control, where he is slated to inaugurate the second phase of a 240 MW hydel project. The Jammu leg of his visit will see a measure of fanfare; but Kashmir is expected to sport a deserted look, responding to a shutdown call by separatists. Tight security across the Valley will only compound the eerie calm.
Mr Modi has shown a felicity for surprise both as a campaigner and PM. Contrary to expectations, he's been slow to reach out to the West and is focusing on the neighbourhood first. He cultivated the image of being a hardline nationalist but has made conciliatory gestures to China; he invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and others to his swearing-in and has barely reacted to ceasefire violations across the LoC.
The people of Kashmir will be looking to see if Mr Modi has any political messaging for them and thereby contradict chief minister Omar Abdullah who has suggested that this visit is bereft of political content. They will be looking to see if PM Modi will be any different from candidate Modi regarding Kashmir. Will Mr Modi choose again to articulate the interests of Jammu and other non-Kashmiri constituents as he did on the campaign trail - or will he display a measure of detachment and gesture to a wounded Kashmir and speak for all in line with the high office he has since attained?
Read: Amid militant threats, Modi’s Kashmir visit has security on tenterhooks
Candidate Modi did not hold out much hope for Kashmir. Speaking at Jammu last December Mr Modi praised Hari Singh, the former ruler of Kashmir who is deeply reviled in the Valley for his repressive reign, as a "foresighted person" and a "social reformer". He called for a debate on Article 370 obscuring the fact that J&K's autonomy has been substantially eroded for decades. He called for national laws to be implemented in the state so that marginal groups like dalits and tribals can benefit, but did not refer to the experience of the Valley where more than 60000 people have died over the past 25 years.
Mr Modi did, however, invoke Atal Bihari Vajpayee's three "mantras" or "guidelines", as he put it, for addressing Kashmir: insaniyat (humanity), jammuriyat (democracy) and kashmiriyat (the common ethos of Kashmir). It remains to be seen how serious PM Modi is about that framework. The result so far is mixed. Mr Modi was silent on Minister of State for Home Jitendra Singh's statement that the Centre was keen on initiating a debate on Article 370. Singh quickly backtracked and clarified that he wasn't representing the PM.
But the Centre's decision to establish separate enclaves for Kashmiri Pandits in an effort to facilitate their return to the Valley is another misguided step. Every sensible stakeholder in Kashmir wants the Pandits to return, but doing so in a fashion that physically separates them from Kashmiris does immense harm to the cause of reconciliation in Kashmir. This measure contradicts the experience of dozens of Pandit families who have stayed back in Kashmir all these years and live alongside Muslim neighbours across the Valley. It's not clear how this will play out, but many hope that Mr Modi will ultimately heed Pandit activists who reside in Kashmir and are opposed to this measure.
Mr Modi should draw a line on these controversies and offer a glimpse of his approach to Kashmir. The people of Kashmir will remind him that the first principle of insaniyat is empathy. And fully understanding the constraints of a state approaching elections, empathy may be all Kashmir wants from Mr Modi at the moment.
The Prime Minister has experience of Kashmir, having worked for the BJP there in various capacities over the years. He will be familiar with its complexity: the enduring political effects of bloodshed, the resentments borne out of a heavy military presence and draconian laws, clashing visions of the future, animosities between Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, and wider India-Pakistan dynamics. His challenge is to use his political authority and drive the stakeholders and interests in the direction he wants. Whether he chooses to take political challenges headlong or uses economics to blunt the thorny questions about independence, autonomy and identity is for us to wait and watch. He, however, must not go in as a Prime Minister and return as just another hardline BJP politician.
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