The invitation by the Centre to Jammu & Kashmir’s mainstream political parties for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come not a day too soon. Though the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration — the name for the grouping of these parties — is yet to take a decision on whether to accept the invitation, it is a vindication of sorts for the political leadership of the erstwhile state. In their speeches over the last two years, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah had declared them irrelevant in “Naya Kashmir” that came into existence on August 5, 2019, and pledged to banish them from its public life. They were jailed, accused of looting the state, and later named the “Gupkar gang” allegedly in cahoots with Pakistan, when they came together to demand a roll-back of the 2019 reorganisation of J&K. The outreach now is an admission that two years after those changes, the Centre’s plan to create an entirely new political leadership, be it through the special purpose Apni Party, or via the District Development Council polls last December, did not deliver the expected results. Just as the DDC elections got a measure of legitimacy due to the participation of the mainstream regional parties, the government needs the endorsement of these parties and leaders once again for its delimitation exercise. With its own constituents in Jammu restive over the political vacuum, and given the difficulties in ushering in the promised “development” in the Union Territory, the BJP-led government is now keen to expedite the redrawing of electoral boundaries in J&K, signalling that assembly elections could be held soon.
For Kashmir’s parties, participation in the delimitation process is a double-edged sword. While being invited into the tent for talks with no less than the PM is a measure of their importance, there is little trust since 2019, the outcomes are uncertain, and carry the risk of their being labelled once again as “betrayers” by their constituencies. While the timeline to the assembly election and promised return of statehood is hardly clear, a boycott now would be as good as cutting off any future engagement with Delhi. It would send out a dangerous message in a place where youth continue to be recruited into militant groups. The government may project its outreach to these parties as a necessary U-turn made only after cutting them to size, where their demand has been scaled down from autonomy to statehood. But it would do better to drop its opaqueness and be upfront on its agenda for talks and the roadmap, if it has one.
The government’s decision to engage at the prime ministerial level with J&K politicians it jailed not so long ago may well be due to domestic political considerations. It may not be connected to the back-channel process with Pakistan that led to the resumption of the ceasefire at the Line of Control, or the fast deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. But as Pakistan wrestles with the question of how to re-engage with India without a reversal of the August 2019 decisions, the start of a new phase in J&K may offer an answer.