Former separatist and Peoples Conference leader Sajjad Lone seemed to have been bowled over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a 45-minute meeting at the PM’s residence here this evening.
“I cannot tell you how humble he is. He was talking as if I was the Prime Minister and not him. It was like two brothers talking to each other,’’ Lone told The Indian Express later. “The meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but he spent a full 45 minutes with me. I went inside at 4.30 pm, there were only two of us. He was extremely warm to me.”
Lone said that Modi didn’t speak to him about the elections at all. “He (Modi) spoke freely. He told me that he would take a personal interest in Kashmir. He said I didn’t go to Kashmir four times until now because of politics. He told me that he truly wants Kashmiris to live a life of happiness and dignity and that he will keep on going to Kashmir.’’
“I talked to him about the problems with flood relief and he said that he (Modi) was personally monitoring it. He said trust me on this — I will restore Kashmir to its glory…I told him you did so much in Kutch in Gujarat and why can’t similar projects be introduced in Kashmir. He told me when it comes to development, I know how to achieve things – wait for a little while and then see whether there is change or not,’’ Lone said.
Lone said he didn’t raise contentious issues like Article 370 or the peace process. “I only told him that he should use his good offices so that people can live with dignity…I asked why couldn’t government of India make Srinagar a smart city. He said it was a great idea but it has to go through a process. I told him about the need of a highway connecting north Kashmir which could only become a reality if it is done under a Central scheme – he promised to discuss it…When I talked about need for urbanization and tourism infrastructure, there was a hint of excitement in his eyes,’’ he said.
The Modi-Lone meeting comes after a long BJP courtship, part of the party’s plan to stitch up a possible post-poll alliance of smaller parties and individuals in the Kashmir Valley where the BJP has little presence. While the BJP’s J&K poll plan hinges on the Hindu-majority seats among Jammu’s 37 Assembly constituencies, Lone and a few other free-floating politicians and parties are part of BJP’s public relations blitzkrieg to exhibit the party’s reach into the Muslim-majority Valley.
For his part, Sajjad Lone has reason to reach out to Modi. A known television face of public dissent in Kashmir during the 2008 Amarnath land row agitation, his party is focused in his native north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. He lost both the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He is contesting from Handwara where his party – then a separatist outfit — had fielded a proxy candidate in the 2002 Assembly polls who subsequently won as Independent. This proxy participation had led to a split in the Hurriyat Conference.
Lone became critical of Pakistan and the separatists because of the assassination of his father, the moderate Abdul Gani Lone, a veteran politician who had been a minister and had contested elections until he turned separatist after the armed uprising of 1990.
Sajjad Lone’s political journey ever since his father’s assassination has been a roller coaster ride. He took on separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and swore on the Quran during a press conference that he would never contest elections. His party’s political manifesto, “Achievable Nationhood.” talked about “earned sovereignty.” He spoke about a Muslim Kashmir and floated the idea of “an opt out option” for the three Hindu-majority districts in Jammu.