After 51 years, Jammu & Kashmir got a politician as governor when Satya Pal Malik became the 13th governor of the state. The last time the state had a politician as governor was in 1965-67. Dr Karan Singh, scion of the erstwhile royal family of Kashmir, and a senior Congress leader, was the first governor of the state. After him, 11 governors came and went, the last being a former bureaucrat, NN Vohra, who held the post for 10 years.
Starting with Bhagwan Sahay, an ICS officer, who succeeded Karan Singh in 1967, the state has had either bureaucrats or diplomats or army officials as governors for five decades. Probably no other Indian state has had such a history of non-politicians holding the office of governor for so long. Credit goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for breaking this tradition and sending a politician as governor. It is also a gradual progression from military men like Girish Chandra Saxena and SK Sinha to a bureaucrat, NN Vohra, and finally to a politician, Satya Pal Malik.
The significance of this transition shouldn’t be missed. There is a tendency to treat J&K differently from other states. Special status, in a sense, is not just there in the Constitution alone; it is there in the collective subconscious of the political establishment of the country. The “penchant” for “controlling” the state from Delhi is acute in sections of our bureaucracy. It requires “special expertise” to manage the state, which only some “eminences” in Delhi have, they insist.
Mehbooba Mufti alluded to this penchant indirectly while speaking at the condolence meeting for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She recollected her father’s meeting with Prime Minister Vajpayee just before the state assembly elections in 2002. Mufti asked him who Delhi had chosen as the next chief minister of the state. Surprised, Vajpayee, a true democrat, told Mufti that it would be decided by the people of the state, not by Delhi.
In 2003, when Vajpayee visited Srinagar to address a rally, he talked about dealing with Kashmir on the principles of “Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat”. He was categorically opposed to separatism and terrorism — finding some leaders with known sympathies to terrorists, Vajpayee refused to share the dais with them and had to be persuaded to relent. When he talked about Jamhooriyat, he meant the true spirit of democracy — a government chosen by the people of J&K, not by terrorists and their cohorts.
There is nothing wrong in non-politicians, like bureaucrats and military officials, and of late, retired judges, becoming governors. We have them in many states today. In J&K, too, governors like Jagmohan and SK Sinha, coming from bureaucratic and military backgrounds, had worked phenomenally well. But what J&K badly needed at this juncture was a politician with a political vision — one who understands the significance of political activism and with whom the local politicians can relate.
Malik, a lawyer by education and a politician with vast parliamentary experience of around four decades, including as a minister in the VP Singh cabinet, handling the parliamentary affairs and tourism portfolios, is the suitable man for the job. A leader of great learning and knowledge, his past friendship and association with leaders like Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has given him valuable insights into the politics and problems of J&K.
As governor, his agenda is cut out — accelerating development activity, resolving the governance deficit, and continuing with strong counter-terror measures. But what is most important is to kickstart political activity in the state. Elections to local bodies, announced by the outgoing Governor Vohra, are an important step in that direction. But they are not enough.
The legislative assembly, with 87 members, is in suspended animation. It has a tenure of over 30 months left. The legislators have to be encouraged to actively undertake political and developmental activities in the state. It is not the gun of the security forces or the pen of the bureaucrats that should be the permanent feature of governance; it must be returned to the political leadership sooner than later.
“Continuous denial of democratic rights to people and fraudulent elections are major causes of disenchantment of the people”, writes AM Watali, a retired and respected senior police officer in his memoirs, adding “Political space was never allowed to be widened. People of the state have all along been denied the legitimate right of forming a government of their own choice”.
One may contest his observations as over-generalisation, but the point about widening political spaces needs to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the political class in the Valley has surrendered the space to terrorists and separatists. All that they do when the terrorists strike is to clamour for talks. People want to talk to leaders. But leaders want governments to talk to terrorists. No government talks with anybody at gunpoint. For the rest, the government has expressed its willingness to engage with various sections of the state, who want peace and progress. The new governor being a politician can be an effective interlocutor for initiating the dialogue process.
The need of the hour is for national and regional political parties and players of various hues to reoccupy their legitimate space. It must not be forgotten that in the initial decades after Independence, even overtly pro-Pakistan parties like the Jamaat had turned to day-to-day political activity, including elections, for legitimacy. Gradually, as the politics in the state was monopolised by a few families with the tacit support of the Centre, all the other players moved out and some of them ended up mired in undemocratic forms of dissent like violent separatism and terrorism.
The new governor is a seasoned politician and understands that the answer to the seeming anarchy in the state is not the security or bureaucratic option alone. It can be more democracy and more political action too.