This is not the first time that Kashmir’s politics is being fashioned by New Delhi within the framework of grassroots democracy. But the removal of article 370 has provided a new template which should provide both sides an equal opportunity to make a new beginning.
The Narendra Modi government has revived the political process in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir with the birthing of a political party – Apni Party – helmed by old Srinagar hand Syed Altaf Bukhari. A former Minister and aide of the Muftis, Bukhari is not new to the complex world of valley politics, having played a direct or indirect role in governments from 1984 onwards – last having staked claim himself as a PDP defector on the dismissal of the Mehbooba government in 2018.
While a complete picture would emerge only with time, a few strokes are clear from the move. First, it underscores the centre's ‘intent’ to bring democracy back into Kashmir. The fact that as a build-up to the move, Bukhari has been vocal about the release of the three former Chief Ministers – Abdullahs and Mufti – is another hint that the centre has a long-term plan to put grassroots democracy in place. It is a message to both the Kashmiris and the world community that India does not intend to restrict democratic exercise in the region any longer. The development has happened amid attempts at carrying out the second round of panchayat elections. Taken together with the newly formed Delimitation Commission, New Delhi is sending a clear assurance to all those interested and concerned that participative democracy is back in the valley for good.
Second, a template has been set on what Kashmir’s politics shall be in the future. Gleaning through the pronouncements of Bukhari and others an agenda emerges acceptance of abrogation of article 370, no talk of self-rule or autonomy, mainstreaming of Kashmir through greater integration of governance with Delhi, and ideological inspiration drawn from Delhi and not from local players. All those who join subsequently this is the template they might have to follow, and to that extent, this might mark a new experiment for Kashmir.
Third, while the new party’s leadership is a mix and match of all existing parties – BJP and Congress included – a complete massacre of the PDP is clearly visible. Most of the top crop of the Apni Party is drawn from the second rung of the Mufti party. The likes of Ghulam Hassan Mir, who might have played an important behind the scenes role, and veteran Dilawar Mir are from the founding group of the PDP. Javed Hussain Beg is the nephew of PDP stalwart Muzzafar Beg. If PDP was an experiment from the first BJP government that went awfully wrong, it has been brought to an end.
Fourth, and this is little ticklish, the Modi government seems to be uncomfortable with the Abdullahs even now. A wipeout of the legacy of the National Conference can be seen in two recent steps – one, striking off Sheikh Abdullah’s birth anniversary from the government’s holiday calendar, and two, removing the title Sher-e-Kashmir – an honorific used for the Sheikh – from the government-owned Kashmir International Convention Centre in Srinagar. This is going to remain another mystery for some time to come, as between the Abdullahs and Muftis, the former were clearly more in sink with Indian ethos.
Observers are perplexed on a couple of more counts. One, the way Sajjad Lone, a sane, vocally pro-India voice has been given a short shrift is beyond comprehension. Two, in the past six months the most visible and vocal politician from the valley has been Iltija Mufti! The daughter of Mehbooba has been making good of her presence outside the internet-shadow region to articulate the Mufti viewpoint, making some in Srinagar wonder if this too was planned. Three, with elections not happening at least this year, what will keep the people bound to the rag-tag party of Bukhari, given they can make promises but there is no window to execute them anytime soon.
Teething troubles with the new administration have meant a bad winter of governance. After it snowed for the first time on November 6, it took two days for the bulldozers to get moving, and another seven days for power to be restored even in posh areas of Srinagar. There is already talk of the new Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu not getting along with Chief Secretary BVR Subramaniam, and a turf war going on between the Director-General of Police Dilbag Singh and Home Secretary Shaleen Kabra. This has led to a confusing multiplicity of commands in the middle ranks of the administration adversely affecting governance. Hope those involved from the North and South Blocks take note of this and resolve at the earliest.
Despite all these hiccups, the centre’s move seems to have enthused people on the ground. This is not the first time that Kashmir’s politics is being fashioned by New Delhi within the framework of grassroots democracy. But the removal of article 370 has provided a new template which should provide both sides an equal opportunity to make a new beginning.