FOLLOWING the all-party meeting between New Delhi and J&K’s unionist parties on June 24, a flurry of political commentary ensued on the causes and outcome of this historic conference. Broadly, three arguments have been offered: firstly, that the Modi government took a U-turn on its hardline Kashmir policy after facing external pressure; secondly, that the BJP decided this new move on Kashmir to get the J&K parties (particularly the Gupkar Alliance) endorse the delimitation process and in view of the upcoming assembly elections in some important states of India; and, thirdly, that the central government through this meeting sought to get the Kashmir-centric parties accept the new order of politics in Kashmir.
Writing in Deccan Herald (26 June), Sushant Singh, a Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based think tank The Centre for Policy Research, argues that three things have converged to force the Modi government’s U-turn on Kashmir: the pressure from China in the Ladakh region has created prospects of a two-front war for India, the withdrawal of the western forces from Afghanistan has made Taliban seizure of power imminent, and the covid pandemic lockdown has badly affected the economic growth and thus weakened the government.
The exit of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan is likely to catapult the Afghan Taliban into a commanding position; and the armed group may eventually take over Kabul. Pakistan is believed to have influence over the Taliban, so Pakistan’s clout in Afghanistan is going to rise with the Taliban takeover. For its post-withdrawal operations against the anti-US armed groups within Afghanistan, the US needs military bases in Pakistan, so there is a possibility of renewed military cooperation between the US and Pakistan. According to Singh, such a scenario is “bound to further complicate matters for India, especially on Kashmir.”
So, one argument is that we must see the all-party meeting of 24th June in this geopolitical context. This is a plausible argument. By engaging in the backchannel talks with Pakistan (facilitated by the UAE) and agreeing to a ceasefire agreement in February 2021 the situation at the LOC has been stabilized, allowing India to, temporarily, pull itself out of the security nightmare of a two-front military engagement across the treacherous northern and western de-facto borders which had overstretched and overstressed Indian troops. The India-Pakistan ceasefire agreement was preceded by the China-India disengagement plans to deescalate the situation along the 3,488 km poorly demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides Chinese and Indian controlled territories in the Ladakh region.
However, Nirupama Subramanian in her article “Limits of Naya Kashmir” (Indian Express: 28 June 2021) sees the geopolitical angle as an over reading and rather views the all-party meeting as a continuation of BJP’s ideological and electoral projects. Subramanian reminds us that the current BJP government “has hardly tailored its ideological projects to the demands of diplomacy or global geopolitics.” Citing the tweets and statements by the Modi-Shah duo after the all-party meeting, she argues that the PM and HM’s emphasis on delimitation in J&K “certainly suggested a focus narrower than the shifting sands of regional geopolitics, which demand grand gestures of reconciliation, people-friendly confidence-building measures, and big promises. There were none of those in the meeting, and there is no indication that such gestures are in the pipeline.”
Subramanian thinks that behind the all-party meeting lies BJP’s sole focus on ensuring its electoral victory in the upcoming elections “vital to its prospects for a third term in 2024.”
But, Subramanian fails to convincingly show how exactly can BJP cash in its new Kashmir move during the upcoming elections (in 2022) in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa and Manipur? By engaging with the people it had projected as the “Gupkar Gang” and the looters of Kashmir, isn’t the Modi government jeopardising its own image of a tough administration that has appealed to the masses?
A more plausible argument is offered by Happyman Jacob, New Delhi-based academic and commentator, who sees the all-party meeting as “a politically cleaver and tactfully sound half-measure.” Jacob argues that New Delhi has set the rules of politics in Kashmir and now seeks to get the unionist parties (particularly the Gupkar Alliance) accept the new political arrangement by forcing a trade-off between returning the statehood and tacitly accepting the removal of Article 370. According to Jacob, “Statehood Vs Article 370 was a carefully thought-out artificial choice made by the BJP government to gain advantage during future negotiations.”
Pakistan had made return of statehood as a precondition for talks with India. BJP engaged with Pakistan in backchannel talks but hasn’t made any real concessions on Kashmir. In fact, by shifting the goalpost from the special status to returning of statehood, BJP has won a “tactical victory over Pakistan”. In the all-party meeting, New Delhi has promised the J&K parties to return statehood at an ‘appropriate time’. But the unionists desperately need statehood for their political survival. As the negotiations between the unionists and the centre prolong, the demand for Article 370 will eventually peter out.
So, contrary to the perception among a section of commentariat, BJP seems to be triumphing in its ideological agenda in Kashmir. Abrogation of Article 370 has been one of its core ideological pillars (apart from the construction of a grand Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and the implementation of Uniform Civil Code across India) and that has been achieved in August 2019. Amit Shah has promised return of statehood, but the chronology will be delimitation, election and then statehood. That means after the delimitation process is completed, Jammu will get up to seven more seats in the J&K Legislative Assembly, thus increasing the region’s share of power in the future J&K government. BJP has its core constituency in Jammu and has consolidated its seat share in the region in the last two elections, winning 25 out of 37 seats in the 2014 assembly elections.
BJP can bear influence on the future J&K government with the aid of its proxies and allies (like Apni Party) within the Kashmir Valley, where BJP is unlikely to win assembly seats. To carry forward its long term ideological agenda in Kashmir and sustain the policies it has initiated since the fall of the PDP-BJP coalition government in June 2018, BJP needs such an arrangement where Kashmir-centric parties have only limited space to operate and minimal powers to challenge the policies. A bureaucratic structure fine-tuned since June 2018 and the veto power vested with the LG will make sure that Kashmir-centric parties are stopped in their tracks if they try veer off course.