New L-G Manoj Sinha fuels hope of political revival in J&K
The appointment of Manoj Sinha, a former union minister and a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, as the new lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir, replacing bureaucrat GC Murmu, has raised expectations that political activity in the region, suspended since it was stripped of its special status and converted into a Union territory (UT) a year ago, is on the verge of being revived.
Regional parties in J&K have a long list of demands starting with a resumption of a dialogue between them and the central government.
Three days after Parliament passed bills to effectively revoke Article 370, which conferred special status on J&K, and Article 35A, which empowered the state legislature to define permanent citizens for whom government jobs and property ownership was reserved, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 8, 2019, assured people of the erstwhile state that they would elect their own political representatives.
“Your representative will be elected by you; he will be one of you. The MLAs would be elected just as they used to be elected earlier. The cabinet would just be as it used to be earlier. The chief ministers would just be as they were before,” the PM said.
The erstwhile state was converted into two UTs, J&K and Ladakh, with effect from October 31.Unlike J&K, Ladakh will not have its own legislature.
A year later, although a host of political leaders including two former chief ministers National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah have been set free from detention that began on the eve of the constitutional changes pushed through on August 5 last year, political activity largely stays suspended.
A third former CM and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader, Mehbooba Mufti, continues to be in detention and most leaders said they are still not allowed to leave home without the permission of the police.
The appointment of career politician Sinha as lieutenant governor, announced on August 6, is being read as a signal that the Centre is keen to revive political activity and pave the way for the beginning of a new political chapter following the formation of the UT. The former state has been without a government since the collapse of the PDP-BJP coalition in June 2018. The process of electing a new assembly cannot start before the process of delimitation exercise, mandated by the J&K Reorganisation Act, is complete.
The political landscape of J&K itself is in the midst of a churn. The regional parties, National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), are grappling with the conditions imposed by the changed scenario, the Congress is barely noticeable and the BJP has been aggressively trying to expand its footprint in the UT, particularly in the Kashmir Valley.
A new political entity, the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, led by Altaf Bukhari , a former minister, created some buzz. but is yet to emerge as an alternative to the regional parties, while the Jammu and Kashmir Political Movement (Independent) came and went in a flash. Parties that were launched in recent times, including the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement started by former IAS officer Shah Faesal, and Sajjad Lone’s J&K Peoples Conference barely found a mention after their founder-leaders were placed under detention. Lone was set free recently and on Monday, Faesal told India Today that he is “ending” his “short gig with politics.”
Soon after taking over, Sinha told journalists in the Valley that there is a need “to establish a dialogue with the common people of Jammu and Kashmir…”“There will be no discrimination against anyone and there should be peace and stability,” he said.
The governor’s statement has not enthused the local politicians, who complain of being sidelined. Wahid Para, spokesperson for the PDP who was in detention until recently, said: “We are battling for space and freedom of leadership. Kashmir is leaderless and representatives are restricted from speaking and moving freely. There’s silence and absence of political activity. On one hand, they talk of Naya Kashmir and on the other hand Kashmiris are feeling left out since no one is talking to us. I wonder what Governor Sahib will do.”
Davinder Rana, a spokesperson of the National Conference, said the lieutenant governor’s political experience should serve to act as a bridge between the people and the administration. “His political experience will only be useful if he can use it to reach out to the people at the grassroots, understand them and their aspirations and convey these to the policymakers in Delhi who, in turn, can draft policies that meet the aspirations of the people and lead to their political social and economic empowerment with dignity and honour,” Rana said.
Former CM and NC leader Omar Abdullah recently wrote that he would not be contesting polls till the statehood of J&K is restored.
While the BJP says the political vacuum is temporary, Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies said it is too early to even say there is a vacuum in the UT. “We cannot say regional parties have lost significance unless there is an election to prove so. And political activity has been put on hold so that the centre gets full control of the region.”
A senior BJP leader, however, asserted that political activity in the UT will be revived. “Whenever there is a political vacuum, new leadership emerges,” the leader said on condition of anonymity“Post-Independence, an attempt was made to make the people believe they were special, but at the same time there were no deliverables,” the BJP leader said. The leader did not reject the possibility of old alliances being rekindled and leaders who have been written off getting back in the saddle.
While people in the UT, particularly in the Valley, have questioned the outcome of the reorganization, criticising the government for failing to check terror attacks, provide internet services and create jobs , the government has defended the move by pointing to the benefits that have reached the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Gorkhas, West Pakistani Refugees and Pakistan-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir displaced persons, who were excluded from caste-based reservation in jobs and educational institutions, voting rights in the state and property rights.
“There has been a change. Unheard voices of the Gujars and the Bakarwals, the refugees are now being heard. Discrimination that existed for decades has ended, so the benefits outweigh the concerns that a section of people and politicians in the Valley have about the scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A,” said the BJP leader quoted above.
The PM too has been critical of Articles 370 and 35A for having “given nothing but secessionism, terrorism, nepotism and widespread corruption on a large scale to Jammu-Kashmir” and as “a weapon used by Pakistan to flare up the emotions of some people.”
In Jammu, where the scrapping of the special status drew a mixed response but the demand for restoring statehood is unequivocal, the BJP says delimitation, which will add more assembly seats to the Jammu region, will change the political fortunes of the region. “The hegemony of the Kashmiri politicians will be over and the regional aspirations of Jammu will no longer be ignored,” said a local BJP leader.
“There is nothing on the ground to suggest that. In the absence of a statutory arrangement in place to press for equal sharing of resources and jobs between the two regions, Jammu could still be at the mercy of whichever party comes to power,” said former bureaucrat and commentator KB Jandial.
BJP’s national general secretary P Murlidhar Rao said the polity of J&K will now be redefined. “Politics will now have to adhere to the true spirit of the Indian Constitution and the definition of secularism will have to be reflected in the Valley. The practice of delegitimizing and derecognising the minorities in the Valley will end.”