The Gupkar alliance is undoubtedly the flavour of the month. On November 17, 2020, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted, “The Congress and the Gupkar Gang want to take J&K back to the era of terror and turmoil. They want to take away rights of Dalits, women and tribals…” He tweeted again the same day, “The Gupkar Gang is going global! They want foreign forces to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The Gupkar Gang also insults India’s Tricolour…” Why, then, are the Prime Minister and Home Minister talking to those who wish to embrace “terror and turmoil… insult the Tricolour”? Both are not known to change their minds. The “Gupkar gang”, according to Amit Shah, which was “going global” and was regarded as an unholy “global gathbandhan” against “national interest”, is now part of a dialogue to serve the national interest.
This sudden change of heart, I suspect, is part of an exercise in political showmanship by which the government wants the world to believe that it is making serious efforts to restore democracy in J&K. Many experts have wondered if, perhaps, the government has been nudged into reaching out to the “global gathbandhan” at a time when guns are silent along the Indo-Pak border. The government’s back-channel diplomacy is part of a larger gameplan necessary not only for bringing back a semblance of democracy in J&K but also to send a message to the world that the abrogation of Article 370 was not intended to throttle democracy but to ensure peace in a region sought to be destabilised by infiltrators and collaborators from within. This will also be seen as the government’s intent to restore the institutions of democracy in the erstwhile state. Also, the government, in this process, is trying to send a message that it is willing to have a dialogue even with those who were considered pariahs since the abrogation of Article 370.
The road to democracy requires the restoration of statehood to J&K. The Prime Minister made it clear that statehood will be considered only after assembly elections are held in the Union territory of J&K. Statehood would amount to a restoration of the legislative assembly of J&K functioning like any other legislature within the Union. However, that is not yet on the government’s agenda. Allowing elections to the assembly in the Union territory of J&K has a two-fold objective. First, I suspect that the Delhi model of an assembly, with almost absolute powers in the hands of a lieutenant-governor, will be replicated in the Union territory of J&K. It is unlikely that the leaders of the Gupkar Alliance would want to be subjected to the near-absolute will of the lieutenant-governor. Understandably, when elections are held and all parties in the Gupkar Alliance participate in that process, the outcome will be an uneasy relationship between the lieutenant-governor and the assembly.
The second is to delimit constituencies and hold elections to the assembly thereafter. This is an administrative exercise and, in this case, based on the census of 2011, to re-determine not just the boundaries of the constituencies but also the number of seats in the assembly, which are likely to increase pursuant to delimitation. This exercise will generate some hostility. While the rest of India will wait till 2026 for delimitation, this exercise in J&K will be regarded as an exception. This is likely to sour the dialogue started by the Government of India a few days ago.
Any exercise of delimitation of constituencies, it is believed, tends to favour the ruling establishment even though it is being headed by a distinguished Supreme Court judge. If the delimitation process takes place in a non-transparent manner to ensure that the BJP’s political presence has greater chances of success, the confidence sought to be built will be eroded. Stalwarts of the Congress, including those who have been chief ministers in the past, are also not likely to participate in the electoral process.
The timing of the assembly elections is also a matter of conjecture but it is assumed that this initiative of the Union government is part of a larger exercise not only to address the concerns expressed in other jurisdictions but also a message within India that a constructive dialogue has begun at the instance of the government. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s statement that the issue of statehood will be considered later without any timeline is an indication of the pitfalls that lie ahead.
It is likely that after elections to the assembly to the Union territory of J&K, the world will be told about the restoration of democratic processes in J&K and how all political parties as part of the “Gupkar Gang” have not only facilitated but also participated in the process. The government will hope to get accolades from the global community for having restored democracy. However, it is highly unlikely that statehood will be restored any time soon — not till 2024.
I must congratulate the Congress for having insisted that statehood must first be restored and elections to the assembly held thereafter. A member of the Gupkar Alliance has also articulated its position in the same fashion.
The road ahead is not easy. Omar Abdullah rightly said that the restoration of Article 370 in the near future is unlikely. He, too, recognises that the people of India were largely in favour of the abrogation of Article 370. The Supreme Court too is not likely to set aside the abrogation. The peace process has just begun but peace in Jammu and Kashmir is a distant dream.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 1, 2021 under the title ‘Photo-op and cautionary tale’. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister