Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Tuesday his fourth visit to Kashmir since he took charge in May, this time to Srinagar on Diwali to “spend the day with our sisters and brothers affected by the unfortunate flood”.
The visit is likely to be only for a few hours Thursday but sends out a strong political signal of New Delhi reaching out to Srinagar, coming as it does when the Election Commission is expected to announce the dates for polls to the J&K Assembly soon. Modi’s BJP is on a high after winning the elections in Haryana and emerging as the largest party in Maharashtra.
The Centre is also working out the modalities for Modi to announce one more relief package for the flood-hit state to add to the Rs 1,000 crore announced earlier. The state government has submitted a memorandum to the Centre seeking a package of Rs 44,000 crore.
Said an official in Srinagar who is privy to the programme being chalked out for the visit: “The Prime Minister basically wants to meet people and express his support in the time of distress. If his stay in Srinagar is just 3-4 hours, we expect he will have time to meet seven or eight delegations and all this will be tied up by Wednesday. It is maybe because of the nature of the visit that instructions have already been sent that no meal will be required for him in Srinagar.”
A shortlist of delegations who could meet the Prime Minister was being drawn up in Srinagar this evening and would be sent to the PMO Wednesday for clearance. It is expected that these delegations would include craftspersons, hotel owners, traders, house boat owners and others who were worst-hit by the floods. Modi could also meet senior Army officers and soldiers who were involved in the rescue and relief operations.
Officials said that the venue for the Prime Minister’s meetings could either be the Raj Bhavan or the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre, depending on the size of the delegations. “If the strength of the delegations is small or medium, the Raj Bhavan would be a suitable location,” an official said. Security checks were being conducted at both the venues Tuesday and a final decision would be taken tomorrow.
Modi’s tweet announcing the visit drew a range of reactions in the valley, with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and opposition PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti welcoming the move, and separatist leaders terming it as “cultural aggression” and calling for a shutdown Thursday.
“As is customary on such occasions, people exchange gifts. We can only give him good wishes,” Abdullah said. “I hope that he comes with a package for which we have already sent the proposals.”
While some in the Valley asked why Modi didn’t time his visit with Eid, Omar said, “Eid is our celebration, Diwali is his… The fact that the Prime Minister is giving up his Diwali celebrations at home to spend some time with people here is more meaningful.”
The PDP also welcomed Modi’s visit. “It is a welcome gesture. People are demoralised and the state government has proved to be a complete failure. While the economic package will take time to show results, the Prime Minister’s visit will reassure the people that the Centre is with them in these trying times,” said PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti.
PDP Spokesperson Naeem Akhtar, while welcoming the visit, said, “It would have more encouraging if he had celebrated Eid with the people immediately after the floods. Most people here celebrate Eid rather than Diwali.”
The separatists, however, termed it as “cultural aggression”. “Kashmir is a Muslim majority place, and there is no relevance of celebrating Diwali here,” said Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Geelani. “It is an attempt to thrust Diwali on us.”
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said Modi shouldn’t politicise the floods. “It (Modi’s visit) is irrelevant for us. It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “People are in great distress and Modi should not have used the occasion for politicking.”
Congress leader Salman Soz said, “He can celebrate Diwali anywhere… We don’t want to make it a political issue.”