Amid a deep trust deficit in Jammu and Kashmir after the Centre abrogated Article 370 and downgraded the state by splitting it into two Union Territories, Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to kick-start the political process leading to Assembly elections, the first step towards having an elected government in the Union Territory of J&K.
While the Delimitation Commission — which met on February 18 this year — has been studying various aspects related to redrawing of Assembly constituencies, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has been working in the background to bring this meeting of Modi with 14 key political leaders — these are former CMs, Deputy CMs and heads of mainstream parties — to fruition. While Modi has reiterated that statehood is the inevitable destination of a political process, a possible roadmap towards that is also on the table for the meeting scheduled at 3 pm on June 24 in Delhi.
On Sunday, at the meeting of the PDP’s political affairs committee, the senior leadership of the party authorised Mehbooba Mufti to take the final decision on the June 24 meeting. National Conference Chairman Farooq Abdullah held consultations with the party’s senior colleagues at his Gupkar residence, and these are expected to continue Monday.
While Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference has called a meeting of its members at Srinagar on Monday, the constituents of the PAGD are scheduled to meet Tuesday. CPM’s MY Tarigami told The Indian Express that as a party, the CPM never closed the doors for a conversation with the Centre. “It was the Government of India that had stopped every line of engagement with us. However, since we are part of the PAGD, we will announce our final call after the Tuesday meeting,” he said.
The Centre’s decision to call all mainstream political leaders for a meeting marks a milestone. In a tweet on November 17, 2020, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had called the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) the “Gupkar gang” and an “unholy global gathbandhan” which wanted “foreign forces to intervene in J&K”.
Leaders of parties in the PAGD The Indian Express spoke to said that inviting them for a meeting convened by the Prime Minister is an acknowledgement that the Centre had no recourse but to involve the mainstream parties for restarting the political process. “There has been uncertainty in J&K over the last two years. It is a bureaucratic government with no political representation and accountability,” said a leader, who did not wish to be named.
Sources in the government, however, said after the decisions of August 5, 2019, and establishment of District Development Councils (DDCs) with a clear charter, Assembly elections had to be the next logical step. “Yes, this could have been done earlier,” said a top government source, who did not wish to be named. He was responding to a question on the timing of the meeting.
But mainstream leaders in the Valley said the idea that DDC would mark a new beginning for politics in J&K was far from reality. “It did not yield a new generation or crop of leaders that would replace the so-called hegemony of the Muftis and the Abdullahs as many in the BJP and the Central government expected. The constituents of PAGD, in fact, made inroads in Jammu too,” said another leader of a party, who also did not wish to be named.
One of the political leaders invited to the PM’s meeting said the move was beyond domestic constructs. “It could be a stretch of a conversation about which we don’t know yet. Whether that concerns the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the beginning of a conversation with Pakistan. They must have some guarantees.”
Emphasising the significance of the move, he said this was not “part of a script” and “unless something goes terribly wrong, June 24 could mark the end of the phase that began on August 5, 2019 in J&K.”
Pointing out that the deep trust deficit with the Centre has been a longstanding liability, this leader said “there is a strong political message here and perhaps a realisation that they have exhausted all avenues of a hardline approach.”
Another source involved in the backroom negotiations between the Centre and political parties said such a move might send the right signal to the international community, particularly the new Biden administration which welcomed restoration of 4G in February this year and expects continued economic and political progress to restore normalcy in Jammu & Kashmir.
Prime Minister Modi may visit the US later this year, and a decision on Assembly elections and a timeframe for restoration of statehood could reinforce his commitment to democracy. Indeed, on August 15 last year, in his Independence Day address, Modi had said the Centre wanted “early completion of the delimitation exercise so that there are early elections, there should be Jammu-Kashmir MLAs, its own cabinet, its Chief Minister so that it can march towards development with a new vigour. India is committed to it and is making all efforts in this regard.”
The Centre is keen that all leaders attend the June 24 meeting. It was not just incidental that the first invitation call by the Union Home Secretary for the June 24 meeting to be chaired by the Prime Minister was made to PDP Chief Mehbooba Mufti, given doubts about her participation. Her uncle and senior party leader Sartaj Madni was released from detention on Saturday.