Could the group photo, the first item on the agenda, have been the main purpose as the government redraws a road map?
Kashmiris in the valley are dismayed that their leaders went to Delhi, after being rudely written off over the past three years, and returned with nothing. Many Jammuites are upset they didn’t get their pride of place – again – when New Delhi welcomed the leaders who have dominated their state for 70 years. Many Pandits are peeved that they didn’t get separate representation.
And the BJP’s core supporters are aghast that their strongman prime minister seemed to be feting the very leaders upon whom they had, led by the party’s IT cell, poured contempt.
All told, prime minister Modi’s high-profile meeting with leaders from Jammu and Kashmir last Thursday doesn’t seem to have pleased any quarter – at least domestically.
Nor did it achieve anything. Negotiations and compromises take place all the time in the backrooms of politics, either directly or through intermediaries. Such a high profile meeting is normally a political act in itself: meant to convey a message.
The Hurriyat leaders’ meeting with prime minister Vajpayee in 2004 was in that category. It was little more than a photo-op but that photograph conveyed a clear message: to Kashmir, the subcontinent, and the world. It signaled rapprochement, in tandem with more substantial talks with Pakistan.
The photo was a priority
This time too, the chief takeaway from the meeting was the photograph of 14 leaders from the union territory with the prime minister, the home minister, and lieutenant-governor Manoj Sinha.
It was the first thing done. Video grabs make it evident that the prime minister was seeing the invitees for the first time that day as he walked up to take his place at the centre of the front row. A lot of hands were folded in greeting.
If the picture was, in fact, the key, one wonders for whom it was meant. If it was meant – as evidence of contact, communication, even perhaps bonhomie – for foreign observers who have pressed the government for a restoration of democracy in Kashmir, it won’t suffice. Those observers, whether to the immediate west or much farther west, would want statehood restored at the very least. Plus, they would want a reversal of some of the steps taken.
This is because the government’s messaging abroad has been so weak (one sees none worth speaking of, in fact) that the world is convinced that the constitutional changes were extremely repressive, and were meant to set the stage for a wholesale demographic recast.
That might, in fact, be the government’s ultimate objective; only time will tell. But in the face of looming threats from China, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the government ought, for the country’s sake, to have made a stronger case abroad about the current, relatively calm ground situation.
Was the purpose really the delimitation exercise?
No other purpose for the meeting other than the photo-op makes sense. If the primary aim was to get these leaders to cooperate with the delimitation commission, this very public request (demand?) only made it more difficult for them to do so.
Having been asked so very publicly, the politicians will cut a sorry figure among their supporters if they meekly fall in line after having opposed the process and demanded that Jammu and Kashmir be restored to full statehood first.
In fact, a couple of parties have challenged the constitutionality of the changes of August 2019 in the Supreme Court.
Quiet phone calls from the prime minister to the heads of the two leading parties would have been a better bet. If even one of them had agreed, the delimitation process would have been legitimised. The other party would then have been likely to join in too so that its priorities were not ignored. Most of the other parties were on board anyway.
Indeed, a visit or two by the Enforcement Directorate, the Vigilance Commission, the CBI, or the Crime Branch would have been more the government’s style, and might have been more effective than telephone calls from the prime minister.
That sort of pressure has worked before, in Srinagar more than Kolkata, and would have pleased the government's core support base.
Core support base dismayed
As things stand, those supporters are sorely unhappy that the prime minister received that group. They want to continue to see leading Kashmiri politicians as anti-national, Pakistani agents, and/or corrupt good-for-nothing dynasts. You know, sattar saal and all that jazz.
Getting photographed with the Great Leader like some kind of G-15 summit group is not meant for the much despised likes of these – not in the view of those that despise.
One observer sympathetic to the prime minister even went so far as to ask if those who might covertly be rooting for a more strident Hindutva face might have advised Modi to convene this meeting.
Perhaps the explanation simply is that the government isn’t sure how to move forward. The reversal of attitude that last week’s meeting represented certainly indicated that whatever road map it had begun with hasn’t worked out.
Since reversal is uncharacteristic of this government, it must have strong reasons to upset its core supporters thus. Perhaps those reasons will emerge in time.