Astute political skills may be key for new J&K L-G Manoj Sinha
Non-controversial, meticulous and amiable are among the descriptors that people who know him use to characterize Manoj Sinha, who made his debut in campus politics in 1982 in Banaras Hindu University and went on to become a quietly forceful presence in the rough and tumble of Uttar Pradesh politics.
It is those qualities that weighed in favour of the 61-year-old politician when decision makers at the Centre sat down to pick a successor to bureaucrat GC Murmu as lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Murmu stepped down from the post on Wednesday evening after more than nine months in the hot seat.
A three-time member of Parliament and a minister in the Narendra Modi government’s first term at the Centre, Sinha’s appointment as lieutenant governor of a newly formed Union territory comes at a time when the region is grappling with multiple issues, from security concerns to a tumultuous social and political landscape .
Sinha was first elected to the Lok Sabha from Ghazipur in 1996, and retained his seat in 1999 and 2014. He held the portfolio of minister of state for railways between May 2014 and July 2016 and was later given independent charge of the ministry of telecommunications as well.
His skills as an administrator, his ability as an astute politician and the perception that he is a man of consensus are being seen as key attributes for a position where he will have to oversee restoration of the political process, reconstitution of the assembly, a possible reversal to statehood and the most challenging task of it all -- winning the trust of the people.
Choosing a politician instead of a bureaucrat or a retired army man is also being read as a signal of New Delhi’s intent to foster friendly ties with the state’s bureaucracy and its people and bank on Sinha’s ability to juggle statecraft with legislative limitations.
The state is looking for a person who can amalgamate the political savviness of Satya Pal Malik with the administrative rigor of Murmu, said a person familiar with the thinking behind the appointment.
To be sure, Malik’s tenure, which came to an end after the August 5, 2019 reorganisation of the state into two Union territories, was marked by controversies. The garrulous governor, who left the administration and political bosses in New Delhi red-faced sometimes with his utterances, was otherwise known to be accessible to the man on the street, the media and the political class--barring that one instance when Raj Bhavan’s Fax machine failed to work as various politicians factions tried to reach him to stake their claim to forming the government after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government fell in June 2018.
In contrast, Murmu, who has worked closely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was conspicuous by his silence and absence from the Raj Bhavan nestled in the Shankaracharya foothills in Srinagar. People close to him say that Murmu preferred the guarded, by-the-book approach; keeping his interactions to a minimal and preferring to stay away from political commentary.
The departure from his safe posturing came only when his suggestions to allow 4G telecom services in the Valley and his free-wheeling comments about the timing of elections in the Union territory earned him the Centre’s disapproval and a terse note from the Election Commission reminding him to respect the poll body’s remit.
The appointment of Sinha, who will have to walk the tight rope of balancing New Delhi’s concerns with conflicting demands in the two diverse regions of Jammu and Kashmir, is also being compared to Arjun Singh’s appointment to the gubernatorial post in Punjab in 1985. Then PM Rajiv Gandhi chose to appoint Singh as the governor to start the political process and elections were soon held in the state after President’s rule ended.
Sinha’s appointment is being seen as an indication of the Centre’s will to initiate the political process in J&K, said a second person aware of the details.
An alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Varanasi, formerly known as Banaras Engineering College, Sinha overcame the caste faultiness in his constituency of Ghazipur, which was also once a left bastion. He is not unfamiliar with tricky political turf. It was for this reason that Sinha, wedded to the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, was considered a front-runner for the chief minister’s post after the BJP’s stunning victory in the assembly elections in UP in 2017. He was pipped to the post at the last minute by Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindutva leader and five-time Lok Sabha MP.
If he was disappointed at losing the job, he did not show it, said a party colleague. According to this colleague, Sinha proceeded to push ahead development schemes in Varanasi, the PM’s Lok Sabha constituency, drafted key rail projects and executed the ambitious India Post Payments Bank (IPPB) project to provide banking and financial services to people in rural areas through the postal network.
On Thursday morning while leaving home for his new address in J&K, Sinha’s only comment to the waiting media retinue was “accha hai” (it is good). His associates said he knew of the appointment that President Ram Nath Kovind put his signature on before 7 a.m. only a few days ago and met PM Modi late on Wednesday following the latter’s return from Ayodhya.
While a section of politicians in the UT have extended a welcome to Sinha with the footnote of hope that he would be their emissary in Delhi, many in the Valley said they prefer to wait and watch. “Jammu and Kashmir is not left to the will and wisdom of governors,” said a former legislator on condition of anonymity.
To the sceptics who have already pronounced an unfavourable outcome for Sinha, an outsider from the Hindi belt who prefers long walks, books and the familiarity of his Ghazipur constituency, a long-time associate, who didn’t want to be named, has a story to tell.
Ahead of the 2019 general elections, the party president gave Sinha the freedom to pick any seat of his liking to contest. The caste arithmetic in his existing Ghazipur seat, having been disturbed by a coalition of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, made it untenable for the upper caste leader to retain Ghazipur, but the tenacious Sinha refused to abandon his seat, said the associate. He eventually lost the seat in 2019.
It is this persistence that the associate is confident will help Sinha navigate the matrix of political instability, the games of smoke and mirrors and fragile security in Jammu and Kashmir to perform the job he has been entrusted with.