Narendra Modi in Kashmir: Ahead of 2019, PM has work cut out in state, could use some help from allies

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to all three districts of Kashmir in a day was clearly a rushed affair — inaugurating a project here and attending a religious ceremony there. But for all that, it was a visit that was in many ways far more important for the country, than his electioneering sprees in the villages and towns of Karnataka. It was also a hugely more difficult exercise for the party, with the BJP being both partner and opponent in the state.

The prime minister's visit to Leh invoked the memory of a diplomat — teacher-monk in terms of the region's heritage, even as he provided the promise of a better future in inaugurating the Zoji La Tunnel. This was a project that was a long time coming in terms of providing a viable all-weather link between Leh, Srinagar and Kargil. It is typical of this prime minister's style that he flags off a carefully selected key infrastructural or practical issue in the area that he visits.

Narendra Modi looks on after inaugrating Kishanganga Power Station. PTI

Narendra Modi looks on after inaugrating Kishanganga Power Station. PTI

If in Kolar, it was a promised resurgence of its mango orchards, in Leh it was a pledge to provide what is literally a life line to an area that remains cut off for months together. Billed as Asia's longest two-way tunnel, it seems to be bracketed with the longest/tallest/largest Chinese infrastructural challenges next door. The redeveloped and improved Karakoram Highway (also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway) built with Beijing's assistance will be truly an engineering marvel. But so will the Zoji La Tunnel, provided it is finished on time. Someone in the Prime Minister's Office needs to keep an eye on that.

His visit to Srinagar was expectedly preceded by such security measures that any 'meet and greet' of the local population as in Leh, was absolutely ruled out. The separatists equally unsurprisingly called for a shut down, which again would have happened in any case, since few would want to venture out at a time when security was so tight. That's a pity for a prime minister who is in his element among excited crowds. However, the key issue in Srinagar was again infrastructural, and in this case, a cocking of the snook at Pakistan.

The formal inauguration of the Kishenganga Power Project — opposed for years by Pakistan — immediately led to an outcry by the Pakistani foreign office, decrying that it was "tantamount" to a violation of the Indus Water Treaty. Pakistani diplomats are among the best anywhere, and the careful selection of language indicates that the establishment is well aware that it is no such thing. The Kishenganga is what is known as a "run of the river" type project, which simply means that it is not designed to store water for irrigation purposes, and thereby adversely affect the flow of water into Pakistan. This fact did not stop Pakistan from calling for arbitration by the World Bank eight years ago, and again in April this year.

It is unclear what Islamabad expects from arbitration at this point, when the project has been completed.

The prime minister also laid the foundation for the Pakul Dul project in Kishtwar, which is likely to raise another round of Pakistani protests and calls for arbitration. Those in the know in Pakistan, are fully aware that India has yet to realise even a part of the actual water storage capacities allowed under the treaty. An earlier Indus Water Commissioner of Pakistan, Jamaat Ali Shah, had been removed from his post, after a clutch of religious groups, as well as retired army men and diplomats who should have known better, accused him of abetting India to "steal" 14 million acre-feet of water.

Subsequently, Shah, a man of immense expertise, had to exit the country in early 2012, presumably to Canada. The inauguration of these two dams at different stages, is therefore very likely to incense those whose business it is to launch terrorists across the border. Given that a reported 13 percent of Kishenganga's output will benefit Kashmir — particularly local interests, any interference by Islamabad, will not be seen kindly by the people themselves. That is a point in India’s favour, provided that New Delhi knows how to use it in public discourse.

The prime minister’s visit had its due share of posturing from various parts of the political firmament. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was profuse in thanking the prime minister for his support of the ceasefire, even while taking a dig at the lack of earlier consensus between the coalition partners. In Jammu, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) protested against the ceasefire, on the not entirely unreasonable grounds that it was giving relief to the militants.

The RSS has also been arguing that the BJP has completely given in to Mehbooba's People’s Democratic Party in policy matters.

Top office holders also indicated disappointed that the party has provided no clear stand on other issues, including the ingress of Rohingya and Bangladeshis into the state. As General Elections near, such arguments are likely to rise, putting pressure on the policy at New Delhi, which seems to be guided by larger interests. Other inimical comments were apparent in media stories elsewhere. The normally reliable Washington Post covered the Modi visit extensively, but with a sting in the tail, with the observation that "Most Kashmiris support the rebel cause while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control".

Unless The Washington Post had conducted a public opinion poll across the state of Jammu and Kashmir, such comments are surprising to say the least. All in all therefore, the prime minister has his task cut out to not just stabilise Kashmir, but also to cope with the actions of a very large neighbour in the close vicinity of its borders. It would be nice if he could count on just a little help from his friends.


Updated Date: May 21, 2018 07:48 AM

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