What’s next for the NC chief, who still has a psychological hold on the people? Can he still be an asset?
The Government has finally realised that its single-minded Kashmir policy, the one it has been ramming hard without factoring in local contexts and complexities, is costing it international acceptability. So even while it convinced the world about changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir as an internal and sovereign matter and as a larger counter-terrorism initiative, its civil lockdown of the Valley ate into its credibility. But what made India look like an unfair oppressor was the arrest of democratically-elected leaders, with a decided pro-India tilt, and labelling them as enemies of the State overnight. Worse, they were considered as good as “terrorists” and booked under draconian laws, nullifying any interlocutory scope that they could have offered with Kashmir’s civil society and citizenry even in a changed scenario. The growing anxieties about human rights curbs in the Valley despite a largely incident-free record, both in the European Union (EU) and the US, and an interventionist push from US President Donald Trump, have finally forced the Government to yield some ground. So it has released former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference (NC) leader Farooq Abdullah after seven months of captivity. And it is likely that it may release others over a period of time. The Government also has self-serving motives. For some time, it has been trying to restore a semblance of normalcy by conducting panchayat and local-level polls, hoping to build a new narrative ground up, albeit with candidates friendly to it. As another round of panchayat polls is scheduled for March, officials elected a year ago, most of whom were walkover wins, fear to move out of Srinagar hotels, simply because they contested against local will. Such was the boycott then that over 12,000 panchayat seats continue to be vacant. This round, too, could collapse as panchayats have made it clear that any electoral process would have to be preceded by the release of jailed NC and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leaders. This has completely blasted holes in the BJP’s attempt to rebuild a grassroots matrix or carry out its much-touted development agenda, something it thought would be a cakewalk in the absence of traditional politicians. It has failed to raise an alternative political front and, therefore, needs to create a political climate first. The NC and PDP would still be needed for that purpose. The BJP may have encouraged the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP), drawing rejects from the PDP and NC, under the stewardship of ex-PDP Minister Altaf Bukhari, but it cannot generate reassurance, least of all credibility, driven as it is by self-serving transactional politics than ideology. The Government would still find it easier to deal with old faithfuls than new aspirants. Perhaps, it is to craft an environment of fairplay that Abdullah has been released. The JKAP may have been formed but needs time to develop a cadre base, something which is still concentrated around the NC and the PDP. Question is will the NC now be used as a polarity to justify the politics of the JKAP or be used to build new bridges? After being treated so unjustly for siding with New Delhi throughout his career, Dr Abdullah has refused to comment on political matters till all leaders are released.
In fact, he may use this unwanted alienation to his advantage and be of some relevance. For at the moment, he hardly has any asset value. For the normal Kashmiri, he is a recipient of much of their hatred and abuse. They believe he shortchanged them by choosing a secular and democratic India and lost Article 370. Now, not only that is gone, the former State has been reduced to a Union Territory. So Kashmiris are questioning his family legacy. For New Delhi, he may have been the moderate face that’s not needed in changed times, given the endorsement of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status both at home and the world. Therefore, Abdullah’s inescapable need to question the abrogation of Article 370 and appear an activist Kashmiri is more than an irritant, it is an obstacle in the new narrative. His suggestions of a negotiated autonomy for the two sides of Kashmir and converting the LoC into a soft border for trade and commerce to flourish seem impractical when all talk is about righting historical wrongs and reclaiming territories in that context, rather than addressing current realities. Yet one must remember his worth through the decades of conflict. He acted as a filter and as Chief Minister did manage to keep militancy in check, give some semblance of credibility to the election process and had a pan-India acceptability as a regional voice. For Abdullah may be a spent force, but people, who have invested in the idea of India at his call, will only see this as betrayal and recede into separatist ways. Simply for that reason, he still has worth and the emotion of his people. It is through him that the Government can let people speak and be heard. Without it, there can be no reconciliation. And the Government’s intent would always seem doubtful to the world.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)