Narendra Modi's speech on J&K: Restoration of democracy, economy emerge as central themes, reveal audaciousness of gambit

Narendra Modi is an activist, a karma yogi, says scholar Walter Andersen. Up until now, that would have been the most accurate description of the politician whose astronomical rise as the leader of a nation has presented a unique challenge to political scientists and theorists. This arises from their singular inability to straitjacket Modi into a definition. It is natural for humans to suffer from an irrational fear when they cannot make sense of something or someone. To a large extent, the criticisms that come Modi’s way for the actions that he has taken during his tenure as the Prime Minister of India can be categorised thus.

The decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A and “cut the Gordian knot”, to quote TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan, calls for an audacity that few leaders possess. There can be little doubt. Modi is out to secure his place in history. And he would be thoroughly deserving of that place if his courageous gamble succeeds in solving perhaps the most complicated problem in South Asia.

 Narendra Modis speech on J&K: Restoration of democracy, economy emerge as central themes, reveal audaciousness of gambit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation on Thursday, PTI

In a way, abrogation of the discriminatory Constitutional provisions — that kept Jammu and Kashmir hostage to the self-interest of an elite coterie and created space for Pakistan to exploit and foment trouble through jihadist proxies — was an idea whose time had come. The revocation wasn’t just a campaign promise for the BJP or part of its foundational principle. The timing was no coincidence. It was the culmination of a series of events, some planned and some unplanned, that necessitated a break from the past.

Politics in Kashmir had reached a status quo where violence and victimhood became a vicious cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. From ‘mainstream’ political parties to the Hurriyat Conference, the political actors in Kashmir were a discredited, disenfranchised lot. The youth cohort — that author David Devadas calls “a generation of rage” — were fast sliding towards Islamist radicalism and terrorism. They were rebels with a cause. They wanted not Independence from India or union with Pakistan, but the formation of an Islamist Caliphate.

As Ashok Malik, former press secretary to President of India, writes, "This 'new wave' of radicalism also meant traditional politicians in the Valley were irrelevant. Not just the Abdullahs and Sayeeds, but also the Hurriyat —pro-separatist and, supposedly, with a sense of the Kashmiri street. Having sold themselves so often to so many bidders, the political class in Srinagar was in no position to sell anything, any tactical advance or retreat, to the belligerent young Kashmiri."

If the government at the Centre wasn’t a willing partner in the dystopian reality of Kashmir Valley, then its hands were tied by the “special provisions” of Articles 370 and 35A. It is evident that the status quo was no longer an option. As I have discussed in a previous piece, the decision wasn’t arrived at in a hurry. It was the denouement of carefully calibrated steps that started with the Modi government cracking down on the terror financing channels that funded jihad (in Kashmir) from across the border.

That Modi proved equal to the trust imposed on him and spent a considerable amount of his political capital in taking a wildly ambitious step is evident. It is also evident that a fresh gambit was inevitable. Now that the die has been cast, what could be the way forward. It is preposterous to think that the Kashmir issue will be solved merely at the stroke of a presidential pen. Winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Kashmiris, providing them with jobs and opportunities, aligning them with the unfolding India story, letting them have the fruits of India’s democracy in terms of welfare schemes, legal protections, re-establishing the mutual trust that lies eroded and making them a part of the representative democracy are complex manoeuvers that could take years to fructify. What Kashmir needs right now is a roadmap, and in his first televised address since the dilution of Article 370 and scrapping of Article 35A, Modi presented a picture of hope and aspiration.

What struck one throughout the almost 40-minute address was the theme of restoration. Modi promised to restore democracy in Kashmir and rejuvenate the economy. The promises of resuscitation of the economy could have been lifted from the speech by Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh but with one crucial exception — by doing away with the subverted “special status” that locked Jammu and Kashmir into a time capsule, Modi has opened a direct channel of communication and given the Indian state a chance to upgrade and improve the delivery mechanisms. He pointed out how the “autonomy” has served to keep the state outside the loop of development, rights and opportunities.

“Laws made in Parliament were not applicable to the rest of the country. In other parts of India, children have the right to education, but in Jammu and Kashmir, they were deprived of it. In other places, girl children got benefits, but in Jammu and Kashmir, they were deprived of it. In other places, the Safai Karamchari Act is applicable, but safai karamcharis in Jammu and Kashmir were not covered by it. In other places, there is a strong law on atrocities against Dalits, but Dalits in Jammu and Kashmir were out of its ambit. In other places, there is a Minorities Act to protect them, but in Jammu and Kashmir, minorities are deprived of it. In other places, there is a Minimum Wages Act for workers, but the workers in Jammu and Kashmir enjoy this only on paper. In elections everywhere else, there are seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not in Jammu and Kashmir," the prime minister said.

What the Kashmir does, is that it opens new possibilities. There must be a reason why despite throwing money at the problem for decades, the Union government saw Kashmir getting alienated more, not less. This is where the gambit provides India with fresh cards. But ensuring that delivery mechanisms are working better is not enough. If the bond of trust has to be resurrected, then Kashmiris must get the right to choose their own representatives, a basic requirement of a democracy that had so long been denied to them beginning with 1952 when elections were rigged in favour of candidates chosen by the Delhi sultanate.

This also forms the crux of Modi’s promise. He said: “Your representatives will be chosen among you. You will continue to have members of the legislative Assembly, ministers, and a chief minister like you had in the past. We want Assembly polls, a new government, and young people as ministers and chief minister. I want to assure you that with all honesty and transparency, you will get a chance to elect government like you got a chance to elect your panchayats.” He reiterated that the Union Territory status is temporary.

It is here that Modi’s speech reveals the calculation that went beyond the timing of the gambit. As I have argued in a previous piece, part of the reason why this step was taken now was the successful holding of the panchayat polls that were boycotted by the “mainstream” political parties and threatened by terrorists. Its success informed Modi that an alternative and fresh political formation was possible where the leaders emerge from grassroots.

The “prime minister underlined how the recently-elected Panchayat leaders of Jammu and Kashmir — who he had interacted with in both Srinagar and New Delhi at his residence — were playing a transformative role in delivering welfare. He claimed that with the end of Article 370, they would flourish. He also appealed to both the young and the women, in particular, to take up leadership and tap opportunities".

In much the same way, the promises of economic rejuvenation carried a note of sincerity and a touch of excitement. At times Modi may have seemed disconnected from reality if we consider the current state of lockdown in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir but Modi’s speech gave that rare commodity, hope, that a populace fatigued with the cycle of violence may want to grab.

He urged Bollywood, Telugu and Tamil film industries to consider Kashmir as an option for their shooting, urged the private sector and I-T sector to open hubs in the erstwhile state to provide opportunities for the youth and vowed to make Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh the tourism capital. Each of the examples that he gave were not hopeful arrows in the dark, but pointers to possibilities that are real. It tells us the amount of thought that had gone behind the taking of the decision.

Modi’s gambit may flounder in the long run or end up solving an unsolvable problem. His decision and the speech on Thursday make one thing clear. Modi is aiming for the history books.

Updated Date: Aug 09, 2019 17:03:53 IST