Space for change in Kashmir, but BJP may miss the chance

  • Rajdeep Sardesai, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 12, 2014 12:54 IST

The year 2014 has been the year of the lotus. The indefatigable Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine has taken the BJP to a spectacular victory at the Centre, won Maharashtra and Haryana and seem poised to win Jharkhand too. It is only when you cross the Banihal pass and reach the banks of the Dal that the blossoming lotus seems to wilt a bit. The BJP may have pushed for ‘Mission 44’ in Jammu and Kashmir but this could well be one bridge too far, at least in this election in the Kashmir Valley.

And yet, the very fact that the BJP has actually fought the election in uncharted territory confirms the undiminished ambition of its leadership. The party has never won a seat in the Kashmir Valley; its best ever performance in a state election was in 2008, when it won 11 seats in the Jammu region, riding on the Amarnath land row; it has been typecast as a “Hindu” party of the Jammu-Udhampur belt. That the BJP should now even consider itself in the reckoning in the state mirrors Shah’s publicly stated dream of the saffron party coming to power from “Kashmir to Kanyakumari”.

Indeed, the BJP does have some credible candidates in the Valley, including as many as 32 local Muslims for the first time. The list includes dentists, bureaucrats and surrendered militants, while retired police officers have been roped in as strategists. The party has pumped in resources. BJP posters and radio advertisements compete for attention with the state parties, senior leaders like Ram Madhav have spent time on the campaign, party sympathisers like actor Anupam Kher have wooed voters and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed an impressive rally in Srinagar. Why then does one come away from a visit to the Valley with the distinct impression that the BJP is still unlikely to make a breakthrough in Kashmir?

At one level, it’s because the BJP is fighting history. At another, the party is almost fighting itself. The BJP’s history in Kashmir, and that of its previous avatar of the Jan Sangh, has been premised around the belief that the Valley doesn’t deserve special status, that Article 370 promotes Kashmiri separatism and that Kashmiri identity must be subsumed into Indian nationhood. Kashmir fits uneasily into the larger sangh parivar nationalist project: A Muslim-dominated region that seeks a measure of autonomy, if not complete azadi, is unacceptable.

Interestingly, Modi was silent on Article 370 during his election rally in Srinagar. Yet, ahead of the general elections in a rousing speech in Jammu, he had called for a national debate on Article 370. By staying away from the contentious issue, the prime minister was being politically sagacious but, conversely, he could also be accused of opportunism. After all, one of his Union ministers, Jitender Singh, who was elected from Udhampur and who now heads the BJP’s election campaign committee for the state, has openly called for the revocation of special status for Kashmir. Silence in the Valley and shrillness in Jammu: The BJP has been caught between competing political realities.

Ironically, while the BJP remains ambivalent on its Kashmir agenda, on the ground there is genuine curiosity about Modi. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke of “insaniyat” being the basis for any resolution to the Kashmir issue, the audience seemed to warm up to him: He had, after all, been seen as a statesman-prime minister who was ready to go the extra mile to reach out to Pakistan and the Kashmiri Muslim. Modi, by contrast, is still seen as the muscular Hindutva he-man, talking tough to Pakistan one day, but refusing to challenge the RSS’s more strident voices the next. When the prime minister commits himself to development in the Valley, there is a certain trust deficit that still haunts the Kashmiri Muslim mind: Will he really walk the talk or is he simply an artful spin doctor?

It isn’t as if young Kashmiris don’t want to break free of past prejudices. Sitting in Café Coffee Day in Srinagar and chatting with Kashmir’s generation next, I get a distinct sense of fatigue with two and a half decades of living in the shadow of the gun. Nasir, a talented young radio jockey, sums it up well, “Two generations have been lost because of the violence. I don’t want my child to grow up in an atmosphere of curfew and insecurity.”

Clearly, there is a mood for change in the winter air as seen in the high voter turnout. The Omar Abdullah government, despite the chief minister’s good intentions, faces voter anger after six years of indifferent rule; the Peoples Democratic Party is the obvious front-runner but doubts persist over the mercurial Mehbooba Mufti’s ability to translate effective agitational politics in the opposition into solid governance when in office; the Congress suffers from familiar charges of sloth and corruption while separatists have lost credibility by their refusal to shun the militants. There is space for a new political force, but the BJP, weighed down by its ideological baggage, doesn’t seem the answer.

Even the floods, which wrecked the Valley, must now be seen as an opportunity lost. The Centre’s package for flood relief has been measly: `75,000 for a completely broken home and `12,500 for one that is partially damaged are hardly the much-needed healing touch. Indeed, the decision to hand over the final package only to a new government is feeding into the perennial Kashmiri sense of victimhood and alienation. “What is more important to India: Holding an election, or rehabilitating us?” asks an elderly Kashmiri woman whose home was washed away and who is now spending the winter in a makeshift tin-shed.

While Modi did well to spend Diwali in the Valley, the truth is, empathy must go beyond symbolic gestures in this troubled corner of the country. The rest of India can be won by a promise of good governance; Kashmir needs genuine ‘insaniyat’.

Post-script: This week, the Jammu and Kashmir cricket team scored a remarkable win over 40-time champions Mumbai in the Ranji trophy. The team had players from Jammu and the Valley. Will the politicians take the cue?

(Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author of 2014: The Election That Changed India. The views expressed by the author are personal)

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