Narendra Modi's meet with J&K leaders a calibrated move, shows PM holds all aces in Valley's political process

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s decision to meet leaders of mainstream Kashmir parties for the first time since the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir has generated a spate of speculation and a storm of hot takes, including some delightfully fanciful ones. We’ve been told that the decision to engage with leaders of Gupkar Alliance was a “humiliating walk back ” forced by, among other things, pressure from Pakistan. Some even saw an invisible American hand behind Modi’s move to invite 14 representatives for talks.

Unless the United States — busy withdrawing troops and managing the fallout of its humiliating exit from Afghanistan — is playing 64D chess, quite possibly even Joe Biden would be surprised to learn that he was behind the all-party meeting in New Delhi. A more rational explanation is that the government has a plan to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s political process and what we saw on June 24 was the first step of that plan being set in motion.

It is my contention that instead of a ‘reversal’, ‘walk back’ or a ‘failed Kashmir policy’, the engagement with eight mainstream parties shows that Modi government remains in control of the political process in Kashmir and retains the advantage in negotiating with mainstream stakeholders.

The meeting with Kashmir’s political class — first of a series of such upcoming initiatives — is not the result of any geopolitical pressure. There is little logic behind the argument that it is linked to America’s pullout from Afghanistan. Washington has its sights set firmly on China and is not enthusiastic about antagonizing its key Indo-Pacific partner over another unsolvable regional mess.

On the Taliban question, India has opened official channels of communication with the insurgent group and that has evidently made Pakistan very uncomfortable.

To the extent regional power politics is at play, it is Pakistan that has been caught off-balance and rendered increasingly inconsequential by India’s Kashmir manoeuvres. Latest signals from Islamabad betray a sense of continued frustration. It is fantastic to assume that a Pakistan which is clearly playing catch-up on Kashmir after India uprooted the template and changed the script, has somehow managed to pressure the Modi government in talking to the Gupkar Alliance.

As C Raja Mohan writes in The Indian Express, “While Kashmir is now on the bilateral agenda, Pakistan has a big problem. India’s August 2019 move in Kashmir is stuck in Pakistan’s political throat. It can neither swallow it nor spit it out. Pakistan’s current Kashmir debate is about finding a way out.”

Ahead of the meeting, it was widely speculated that statehood will be on offer, perhaps drawing from the Modi government’s promise in Parliament that Jammu and Kashmir — that was bifurcated into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh on August 5, 2019 — will get statehood at an “appropriate time.” This was another red herring.

Statehood was never on agenda. While its restoration was raised by attendees, the government stressed on reviving “grassroots democracy” by completing delimitation exercise for the J&K Assembly seats followed by elections to set up an elected government. The Modi government aims to use statehood as a leverage to force the acceptance of Article 370 abrogation as a fait accompli and create new ground rules for politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

In a tweet following the meeting, the prime minister wrote: “Our priority is to strengthen grassroots democracy in J&K. Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected Government that gives strength to J&K’s development trajectory.”

The prime minister said “quick pace of delimitation” was high on the government’s priority list and there is no reason to indulge in intellectual gymnastics to ferret out a hidden agenda when the stated ambition makes perfect sense. It is remarkable how most commentaries have missed the glaringly obvious — the reasons behind Modi government’s stress on completing an early delimitation exercise. Unpacking this would also clarify the reasons behind the meeting and its timing.

Delimitation is of particular interest to the Modi government because along with the reading down of Article 370 and 35A and promulgation of new domicile laws, successful delimitation of Assembly and Lok Sabha seats in J&K may reorder the demographic balance of the region, give numerical advantage to Jammu and irreversibly upend the closed-loop politics that has established Valley’s hegemonic hold over the political process.

Last done in J&K in 1995, delimitation “rationalises the structure and composition of the electoral constituencies, on the principle of ‘One vote and one value’,” and seeks to initiate a “fair division of geographical areas so that no political party has an edge over the others in an election” could delineate more seats to Jammu, that is geographically larger and has bigger constituencies and end Valley’s hegemony.

Delineation isn’t a purely political manoeuvre. It is also ruled by demographic logic. To quote from Sant Kumar Sharma’s 2019 piece for Firstpost, “In terms of (criteria i) population, Kashmir is ahead of Jammu as per the 2011 census. In terms of (criteria ii) geographical compactness, Jammu constituencies are far bigger than those in Kashmir. In terms of (iii) nature of terrain also, vast areas of Jammu are more disadvantaged than Kashmir. In terms of (iv), facilities of communication, Jammu is far less developed than Kashmir. This means that on the yardstick of population, Kashmir is ahead of Jammu. But on all other four indices for deciding delimitation, Jammu is ahead and can have many more seats.”

The ball is rolling in that direction. Media reports indicate that delimitation of new assembly constituencies in J&K will be based on the 2011 census data and as per the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, the number of Assembly seats K may increase from 107 to 114, benefitting the Jammu region. That should have a momentous effect on local politics. Though the BJP has opened its account in the Valley by winning three seats in last year’s District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir, it remains stronger in Jammu and if the Jammu region gets more seats post delimitation, that could add to BJP’s strengths and proportionately reduce the agency of the Valley.

The Delimitation Commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai along with CEC Sushil Chandra and J&K state EC KK Sharma as ex-officio members, was set up on March 6, 2020. It was tasked with completing the delimitation of J&K in a year. This was necessitated due to the nullification of the state’s special status in 2019 and subsequent bifurcation, bringing the UT of J&K within the ambit of Indian Constitution.

The panel, however, was hampered by Covid-related constrictions and subsequently received a year’s extension in March 2021. The panel also has five associate members — National Conference MPs Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Hasnain Masoodi, Union Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Dr Jitendra Singh, and Jugal Kishore Sharma of the BJP.

It wasn’t a surprise to note that days after Modi’s engagement with J&K political leaders, the Delimitation Commission on Wednesday decided in a meeting that it will be visiting the UT from July 6 to July 9, “and interact with political parties, public representatives and state government officials for redrawing of boundaries of existing Assembly seats.” The panel will also carve constituencies to be reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes for the first time in J&K, according to reports.

Along with Desai, Chandra and Sharma, the delimitation panel also has five associate members — National Conference MPs Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Hasnain Masoodi, Union minister of state in the PMO Jitendra Singh, and BJP’s Jugal Kishore Sharma.

Apart the two BJP members Jitendra Singh and Jugal Kishore Sharma, none attended a meeting of associate members (meant to be elected representatives of the UT) called by the panel in February this year. According to a report in Indian Express, the NC leaders stated that Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 was “palpably unconstitutional” and delimitation exercise should be postponed until the Supreme Court decides the constitutional validity of the law.

After meeting Modi on June 24, National Conference president Farooq Abdullah has reportedly signaled his interest at joining the Commission. Now we begin to see the logic behind the June 24 meeting. Also worth noting is the fact that on Wednesday, Union minister of state for home affairs G. Kishan Reddy met former MPs and civil society members from Kargil and Ladakh at his residence, indicating a sequential plan.

Add to this the prime minister’s call for removing Dilli ki doori (distance of New Delhi from Kashmir) and Dil ki doori bhi (also distance between hearts) and we see a calibrated mixture of carrots, sticks and trust-building attempts to revive the political process. The Valley-based parties know that Pakistan has been disenfranchised and unless they play by the rules set by the Modi government, they will be left with nothing. Ordinary Kashmiris’ lack of any interest in protests during the incarceration of the Abdullahs and Muftis would have shown them the extent of their political clout on the ground.

However, it is undeniable that to the extent the Centre has been forced to call into play the very leaders that it imprisoned and denounced as ‘Gupkar gang’, it has clearly failed in creating an alternative political force on the ground that replaces the Valley-based old elite for good. There are several reasons for this, some outside the space and purview of this column but chief among these is the simple fact that in the reorganization of politics in J&K, terrorism still has a vote.

In fact, since the abrogation of Article 370 and Centre’s attempts at developing new generation of grassroot politicians in the Valley, terrorists have changed their tack and started attacking soft targets such as BJP and RSS politicians. In July last year, BJP leader Wasim Bari, his brother Umar Bashir and father Bashir Ahmed were all shot to death in Bandipora, a month later BJP leader Abdul Hamid Najar, a resident of Budgam was killed while he was busy on a morning walk and in October three BJP functionaries in Kulgam were shot dead by terrorists, including the district general secretary of the party’s youth wing.

Attacks continue. In June this year BJP councillor Rakesh Pandita was shot dead in South Kashmir’s Tral. So far, 17 BJP leaders have been killed in Kashmir since the revocation of the special status.

These attacks are aimed at demoralizing the ground-level cadres, scaring away the youth from joining politics and hampering the political process. This is the biggest challenge for the Modi government. It has to a large extent sanitised the noxious Valley politics, and through abrogation has created a new reality, but the normalisation of that reality and subsequent steps will depend on how effectively it manages to defang the terror operatives and deny them agency in Kashmir’s political process.


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