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OP-ED: Modi’s Kashmir gamble and the UP election

  • Published at 08:11 am June 29th, 2021
Narendra Modi
File photo of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi

His policy is nothing but an extension of his Hindutva ideology

India’s Kashmir policy is part external affairs, part home affairs. Depending upon the predilection of the person in power in Delhi, the relative share varies. For example, in Pandit Nehru’s time when foreign policy used to matter more, it was primarily seen through the prism of international politics. But in Narendra Modi’s time, since Hindutva politics is reigning all the way, his Kashmir policy is nothing but an extension of his Hindutva ideological thrust. 

Behind every move in Kashmir, it is important for the Modi government to see how it would influence the Hindu voters in the cow belt. Unless one is ready to analyze the current developments from this perspective, our reading of the ongoing events will not be anything other than reinventing the wheel, that is, autonomy for Kashmir, bringing Kashmiris back to the Indian “mainstream,” and so forth. 

Let me, therefore, paraphrase in this connection what a Bill Clinton poll adviser had famously said during his election campaign in 1992: “It is the economy, stupid.” 

I would say: It is the UP election, stupid.

Nothing else to flaunt

But here there is a problem. The challenge is how to interpret Modi’s climb down on Kashmir as a step forward in his Hindutva march. There is little doubt that as the UP election draws closer (likely in March 2022) BJP would be obliged to use its Hindu card with greater gusto because the party has nothing else to flaunt. 

The Modi-Yogi (UP CM Yogi Adityanath) political confrontation, though being wrapped up in all kinds of subterfuge, is quite out in the open. Modi could have easily used the dismal failure of the Yogi regime in combating the scourge of Covid but Modi’s own record is not glorious on that count either. The fear is that the more Yogi would be pushed to the corner, the more he would embarrass Modi by listing the failings of the latter.

Simply put, the only meeting point between Modi and Yogi has to be, therefore, the platform of Hindutva, although each will try to steal the thunder as its bigger votary. The postponement of the winner-loser melodrama to the last scene, the electoral outcome, would be the best bet.

Given this reality, how best to fit his Kashmir gamble into UP’s election campaign is Modi’s trial. The opposition will not indeed leave any stone unturned to make use of BJP’s discomfiture on this count.

Difficult to foresee

How exactly Modi’s UP strategy will pan out is difficult to foresee. One will have to wait till the winter when, on the one hand, for climatic reasons, Kashmir politics will go into hibernation, and on the other, the UP election campaign would be in full steam. 

It is by early next year, therefore, the real face of Modi’s Kashmir policy would be exposed. He would not only be obliged to sell his macho image of one who defanged the Articles 370 and 35A but also the one who is committed to see to it that the Hindu-majority Jammu was better placed to deal with the Muslim-majority valley which is only possible through the redrawing of the assembly constituencies. 

The proposed delimitation is already on the cards. He has made it clear to the Kashmiri leaders -- first delimitation and then election and then restoration of statehood. In that order.

Pipe dreams

As a backgrounder, one would be advised to recall as to how the emasculation of Articles 370 and 35A were greeted with delight in the cow belt as if Kashmir’s picturesque meadows would now be open for purchase by north India’s real estate tycoons and Kashmir’s fair-skinned girls would be up for grabs by rugged-half-educated north Indian Hindu grooms. 

The BJP Chief Minister of Haryana had the audacity to even say so publicly. To cap it all, in way of displaying their commitment to building a Hindu rashtra (nation) some Hindu fanatics mercilessly thrashed Kashmiri Muslim street vendors and small traders as if they were the ones who came in the way of their dream project.  

All this, however, cannot be repeated now by the Hindutva champions as their Hindu hriday samrat (darling of the Hindu soul) Modi has himself broken bread with the Kashmiri Muslim “gangsters.”  

The so-called “Gupkar Gang” was a phrase coined by no less a confidant of Modi than Amit Shah, India’s Home Minister. That by now this gang phrase in general has lost much of its shine because of its overuse is another matter. Of late, we seldom hear of the tukde tukde gang, the Khan Market gang, the Lutyens’ gang, etc.

Not much to stand on

In the UP election, therefore, the only new Hindutva platform that will be manufactured so as to dilute Modi’s retreat from his macho Kashmir policy will be in way of compensating for the distress Jammu Hindus are allegedly subjected to. 

The more BJP will be pushed to the corner by the agitating farmers, who have shown their political teeth at their pro-Mamata Banerjee rallies in Bengal, BJP will be obliged more to display its pro-Jammu card by disproportionately highlighting the necessity of delimiting the Jammu and Kashmir assembly constituencies to give more powers to Jammu Hindus vis-à-vis the valley Muslims. 

What really happens in the long run is not the issue, the issue is to stir the broth during the campaign to soothe the Hindu sensibilities.

Kashmir’s autonomy

To conclude, let me underline that in spite of all efforts of the Hindutva forces to push India’s “secularism” to the oblivion, its ghost is not yet exorcised, which the 2024 election may demonstrate. 

In a similar vein, the ghost of Sheikh Abdullah still haunts the mandarins in Delhi, who are forced to walk the tightrope at one end of which is the question of Kashmir’s “autonomy” while on the other end is the challenge of finding a workable balance between Delhi and Srinagar. 

That in this ever ending game the latter always suffers from; the tension of losing its balance only proves the point, meaning it is able to still cling to the rope notwithstanding all the impediments put up by Delhi.

Between 1953 and 1975, when most of the time Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s legendary leader, had to spend in prison -- 11 years of which were during the Nehru regime -- the government at Delhi tried its best to dictate the Kashmir narrative through its cronies that were put on the political seat of Srinagar. 

But the issue of autonomy refused to die. In one of his recent newspaper columns, one of the most thoughtful voices from Kashmir, Haseeb Drabu, Jammu and Kashmir’s former finance minister, quotes Abdullah to characterize the period as that of siyasi awaragardi (political vagabondism), meaning Delhi trying to control Kashmir by hook or by crook but only with limited success. 

Is the Modi government entering into yet another siyasi awaragardi phase? Whether it is secularism or Hindutva, Kashmir will remain Kashmir, as always.

Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. E-mail: [email protected]

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