Not since the New Delhi Agreement in 1952 has a Kashmiri leader stood so insistently for reassurances from the Central government.
There is a great difference of course. Sheikh Abdullah’s prime concern then was to oust the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and obtain maximum autonomy. In fact, he wanted to pave the way for the state to become independent under his (rather than the maharaja’s) leadership.
On the other hand, Mehbooba Mufti has sought reassurances that the PDP-BJP coalition government, which she is expected to head, would function smoothly. Not only does she want she want policy agreement with the Centre, but also that grassroots leaders of the BJP should not rake up contentious issues.
The other great difference between 1952 and 2016 is a bit of an irony. The New Delhi Agreement led Syama Prasad Mookerjee to resign from Nehru’s cabinet and form the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), to agitate against that Agreement – mainly in Jammu. Mehbooba has sought reassurances from the BJS’s successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party – which won the popular vote across much of the Jammu province for the first time in 2014.
The divergent insecurities and aspirations of people in the Jammu and Kashmir provinces respectively caused extraordinary friction within the coalition government, between 2002 and 2008, and again in 2015.
It will augur well for the state, and for the country, if confidence is now built sufficiently between the two parties for their coalition to function smoothly. In the past couple of months, Governor NN Vohra’s administration has shown how well a cohesive government can perform.
Over the past few days, ordinary Kashmiris and some community leaders have praised the efficiency, responsiveness and honesty that they have witnessed under Governor’s Rule. Officials at levels of public interaction have apparently been living up to people’s expectations.
Despite his redoubtable talents and experience as an administrator, the late chief minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, had been hamstrung through much of 2015 by a series of avoidable controversies over such matters as the beef ban and the state flag. More vital, his hands were tied administratively by a lack of monetary resources.
When she had asked for reassurances a couple of months ago, Mehbooba had pointed out that she did not have her father’s experience or skill, and so would find the task more daunting.
Perceptions make a big difference, in politics more than in most other things. So, the big question is whether policy makers at the Centre view things the same way as Mehbooba and her colleagues. She must ensure that leaders at the Centre do not view her as intransigent or unreasonable.
Apparently, one of the concessions Mehbooba has obtained is that the pending portions of the Rs 80,000 crore `package’ which the prime minister had announced in Srinagar in November will be swiftly disbursed – and that the state government will have discretion over expenditure.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stated in Parliament last Monday that the government would go `the extra mile’ to back the equitable distribution of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Sections of the PDP took that statement in Parliament as a very positive signal.
Politically, the return of vast grounds currently occupied by the army will also be positively received. This move will be highly visible, since these grounds are in the state’s major cities – Srinagar, Anantnag, Jammu and Kargil. The vast plots in Srinagar and Jammu are in the heart of those capital cities of the state.
The Army had already agreed to vacate some of those grounds while he was the chief minister. At a meeting a couple of days ago, Governor Vohra and the Commander-in-chief of the Army’s Northern Command agreed to a deadline. The Army will hand over these major grounds to the chief secretary by 31 March.
The possible withdrawal of 'disturbed area' status from certain districts could become another major political talking point for the new chief minister. if that happens, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) would not apply in those districts. The Act gives the armed forces the power to enter and search a place, and search, detain or kill a person suspected with regard to terrorism. The Centre may agree to remove the application of AFSPA from Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts. Mehbooba would want Srinagar district included too.
Governor Vohra had even begun to move towards conducting local bodies elections in the state. He cancelled a meeting he had called for this purpose on Thursday after it became apparent that a coalition government might take office soon.
Some analysts have suggested that the constitutional requirement that there must be no more than a six-month gap between successive sessions of the state assembly means that the legislature must meet by 9 April – and that a new government must be in place before that. Such analyses have served the purpose of putting pressure on the parties concerned to swiftly form a government.
The Home Ministry has been particularly eager to have a state government in place to handle the increasingly visible public support for militancy – as was evident during a recent encounter at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute on the outskirts of Srinagar.
However, the most potent factor pushing both parties towards government-formation is the awareness that they would both fare poorly if fresh elections had to be held. The BJP might lose considerable ground in the Jammu region, where the Modi wave helped it considerably in 2014. The PDP too would lose a number of its current tally of 28.