The statement of the minister of state in the PMO that Article 370 of the Constitution, giving special status to Jammu and Kashmir, will be the subject of a debate with stakeholders is in line with what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said at a rally in Jammu in December, months before the electioneering started.
Mr Modi too had then spoken of a debate on the Article and highlighted the fact that it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who, as prime minister, had the wisdom to visit Jammu and Kashmir when none of his (Vajpayee’s) immediate predecessors did so.
The minister’s statement provoked an angry reaction from Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, who said the state would not be part of India if the Article ceased to exist— a response reminiscent of what his father and National Conference chief, Farooq Abdullah, said about Kashmir leaving India if a “communal” government came to power in New Delhi. What complicates the situation is that the state goes to polls later in the year.
What is getting lost in the jumble is a picture of the constitutional development of the state. While it is commonly known that the state became part of the Indian Union because Maharaja Hari Singh had signed the Instrument of Accession with the Indian government in 1947, it needs stressing that the reach of the Centre remained then confined to defence, foreign affairs and communication.
Then the government had given an assurance that the accession would finally have to be confirmed by the people, but it also specified that under no circumstances will a third party be brought into the picture. Subsequently the Constituent Assembly of the state ratified the accession to India, and through the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order in 1954, the Centre’s jurisdiction had extended to all items on the Union List of the Constitution. Apart from the fact of Article 370, the state has a separate constitution, which came into effect on January 26, 1957, and which too recognised the accession to India. Any discussion on abrogating the Article must take into account these facts of history.
If the Article is to go, the winning formation must have 66% strength in each House of Parliament for a constitutional amendment. While the NDA’s strength is close to that in the Lok Sabha, it falls far short of the figure in the Rajya Sabha, though it is expected to increase with time.
Next comes the question whether the BJP’s allies, such as N Chandrababu Naidu or Ram Vilas Paswan, will be agreeable to such a proposition. Therefore it would be interesting to see what results the debate, if initiated, yields.