If, as most polls suggest, Narendra Modi is likely to return as prime minister albeit weakened by the loss of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) majority, it’s time we took seriously some of his party’s manifesto commitments. The ones I want to focus on concern Kashmir. It is, undeniably, one of the most serious challenges awaiting the next government and, arguably, very poorly handled by this one.
Compared to 2014, terrorist incidents have increased nearly 300 per cent according to home ministry figures. Bomb blasts have gone up by 330 per cent according to the National Bomb Data Centre of the National Security Guard put out by PTI. Last year, the number of people killed in Kashmir was the highest in a decade, according to the J&K Coalition of Civil Society.
The number of local Kashmiris joining militancy was also the highest in a decade. Today it’s not uncommon for young Kashmiris, often young girls, to throw stones at security forces to prevent them from capturing militants. These young teenagers show no fear. It seems we’ve alienated them.
It’s in these circumstances the BJP manifesto commits the party to abrogating Article 370 and annulling 35A. Other than BJP supporters, practically everyone else believes this will inflame the situation. It’s a recipe for making things worse.
The key question is: Does the BJP mean what its manifesto says or is this political posturing to enthuse and consolidate its voters in the rest of the country? Until last weekend, there were few doubts but then general secretary, Ram Madhav, queered the pitch. Speaking in Anantnag, he said the issue will be decided by the Parliament. The BJP is fighting in Kashmir “on the agenda of development, so let’s now focus on this”. He then proceeded to speak about Insaniyat, Jamooriyat, Kashmiriyat, the Vajpayee formula of two decades ago.
So was Ram Madhav tweaking the manifesto commitment? Was he, subtly, telling Kashmiris not to take it seriously? Possibly. That conclusion was seemingly corroborated when, a day later, Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh reiterated in strong terms the commitment to abrogate. But they were speaking in Barabanki and Lucknow, far away from the Valley.
The truth is the BJP position on 370 has repeatedly changed since the mid-1990s. In 1996 and 1998, it promised to abrogate. In 1999 and 2004, it was silent though LK Advani publicly said (24 March 2004) that this was not the right time to abrogate. In 2009 and 2014, the BJP, once again, decided to abrogate. A year later, in 2015, in the Agenda for Alliance with the People Democratic Party (PDP), it committed itself to retaining 370. Now, in 2019, it’s gone back to abrogating.
So what should we make of the latest commitment? To whom is it addressed? And if the party wins, will it be implemented or forgotten? Whilst clear answers are awaited, one thing is certain: If the commitment is serious it’s certainly no more so than it was in 1998 and 2014, when the BJP-led governments that followed did not even for a moment consider abrogation.
This time around the commitment has provoked anger in the Valley. That, perhaps, is what the BJP wanted. It has the right effect on its supporters in the rest of the country. But lest the situation in Srinagar and Anantnag get out of control, Ram Madhav sought to delicately defuse it. And in case that sent the wrong message south of the Banihal, Shah and Singh trumpeted the undiluted commitment.
This feels like different strokes for different folks. Of course, that’s what the BJP has been attempting for two decades. But does it reveal Modi’s BJP in a flattering light? Or suggest a preference for opportunistic tactics over conviction and principle? I wonder how Modi would answer that question.