Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is currently on a three-day visit to the Valley, is also known to be a master of timing. This is Shah’s first visit to Jammu & Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019.
Technically, it should be noted that the dissolution of statehood, and the bestowing of Union Territory status brought the region directly under the watch of the Union home ministry. So, why did Shah take more than two years to go there?
It would be simplistic to assume that the recent spate of terrorist attacks triggered the trip. But his messaging was overwhelmingly about law and order, and security, rather than anything political, notwithstanding a few passing statements and speeches. This was underscored by travel to the forward areas, and calling upon the families of martyrs.
Despite what the chronically-carping Opposition and sulking leaders of the erstwhile mainstream Kashmiri political parties have to say, even critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the foreign media admit, albeit reluctantly that there has been a sharp decline in terror activities in the Valley since August 2019.
Looking at it in retrospect, there can be differences of opinion on whether the extended restrictions on civil liberties were an overkill. But, as Shah said, it was a “bitter pill” that had to be swallowed. However, the question that remains is whether the vitamins and nutraceuticals that are usually prescribed with antibiotics were also administered in adequate measure?
If the elixirs were to come in the form of development, investment and job creation, it is too early for the new harvest. To be fair, first the curfew and then COVID-19 would have also delayed the development agenda. The political process in Jammu & Kashmir began in earnest after the appointment of Manoj Sinha as Lieutenant Governor in August 2020. Before Sinha, the shots were called primarily by the security establishment led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
Sinha’s first achievement soon after taking charge was the holding of district development council elections following the release of politicians under detention. This was seen as the first step towards restoration of statehood, although some felt it provided a platform for the old guard to resurrect themselves. It was also a tacit acceptance by them of the new order.
Some political parties had boycotted the sarpanch elections before that, resulting in around 4,000 being elected without their blessings. The formation of the Gupkar Alliance was, therefore, perceived as an act of dynastic self-preservation by the Abdullahs and Mehbooba Mufti. However, critics argued that New Delhi was not able to take advantage of this interregnum.
As a result, one did not see any churn in Kashmir throwing up any new political formation. The old power brokers are still at large, and continue to accumulate wealth by gaming the system. Among politicians, Sajjad Lone, who appeared to be a beacon of hope, gravitated towards the Gupkar Alliance. The Congress did get marginalised, but that was likely to have happened without the developments of 2019. The BJP, by default, took up that space.
Thus, when the Prime Minister invited 14 leaders from Jammu & Kashmir to New Delhi in June, it was a parade of the same familiar faces. There were murmurs in the media that the meeting had been called after a gentle nudge from the international community, primarily the new Joe Biden administration in the United States. The commentators were trying to hint — perhaps with some justification — that there has been a slide-back in New Delhi’s position over the months. If that was an exaggeration, there was not much to show in the report card either.
However, one message did get reiterated, after all. It was made clear that elections could only be held after the delimitation exercise. Though there were rumblings about restoration of Article 370 on the side-lines, those calls were muted.
The Afghan Factor
Since then, much water has flowed down the Jhelum and the Indus — especially on the other side of the LoC. The events in Afghanistan, although not unexpected, took everyone by surprise with their speed and manifestation. The world is still grappling with the ramifications, and trying to understand the nature of the beast reincarnated as Taliban 2.0.
The developments in Afghanistan have given a shot in the arm to Pakistan in more ways than one. Pakistan knows that a solution to Afghanistan would not be possible without its participation. The newfound confidence finds expression in its heightened belligerence across the LoC, and through its assets in the Valley, as witnessed in the recent spate of incidents. This also provided an opportunity to some Kashmiri politicians to indulge in their favourite pastime of fishing in the turbulent waters of the Lidder River.
The timing and significance of Shah’s visit must be understood against this backdrop. At a visible level, he had to deliver stern signals on the security angle to all the actors. A rise in insurgency is bound to set back the political timeline, which the Centre cannot afford. But there was another less apparent dimension to Shah’s three-day foray.
So far, the biggest dividend the BJP has reaped by abrogating Article 370 has been from its core constituency in the Hindi heartland. In view of the coming elections and the run-up to 2024, it cannot fritter away that political capital by allowing Kashmir to drift. Therefore, a larger part of Shah’s brief was to go to Srinagar and Jammu as Modi’s emissary to ensure that the political game plan does not get derailed in the melee. That is a risk the BJP cannot afford. So, Shah may not wait for another two years for another Kashmiri sojourn.
Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator. Twitter: @SandipGhose.Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.