On December 1, 2013, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (then Gujarat Chief Minister) created a stir when he called for a debate on Article 370. He was addressing a public meeting in Jammu and surprised one and all with the ostensible departure from his party’s known stand of its outright abrogation. Since then the debate, though not at the official level, is on among the political parties. What is significant is the fact that Article 370 has dominated the campaign that is on for the ongoing elections in Jammu and Kashmir which started on November 25.
Both Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh stressed upon not raking up Article 370, asking party cadre to concentrate on the issues of governance and development. But in practice both of them as also all others who are camping or campaigning in the state have already made it an issue. In reaction to what BJP is doing two main regional parties National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party have taken it head on swearing that they would not allow it to happen. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah made a direct attack on BJP on November 24. In an interview to PTI, he said: “Article 370 will sink BJP’s boat in J & K”. A day earlier PDP founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed told an election rally in Bandipore that his party would do everything to protect Article 370.
It is interesting that by saying that this issue should not be raked up in the elections, the BJP leadership has achieved part of its goal by making it the sole discussion point in the elections. The way the political parties have shifted their focus to Article 370 and engaged themselves with BJP and what they call its “divisive agenda”, it seems that PM Modi has succeeded in doing what he said on December 1.
Space in newspaper editorials and columns is also devoted to this subject, which makes it clear that the discussion is on. It is a different issue that Modi had sought the debate on the lines whether this Article had helped Jammu and Kashmir state to grow or not. But the debate is centered around its link with the special status and not the development.
Article 370 is so heavy on the minds of regional parties that they even forgot to come out with their manifestos ahead of the first phase of elections. Only Congress managed to do it and that too just two days before the first phase. The issue has occupied the larger space in the election discourse. Both NC and PDP are finding it easy to touch the raw nerve and stonewall the BJP’s much ambitious plan of reaching to magic number of 44 in the elections. Both are aware that when it comes to politics, whether people would vote or boycott, the special identity is very close to the hearts of the people. Even those who believe that it is an empty shell and the only solution is in “Azadi” from India, have this feeling that if this Article is touched, it will be a psychological defeat for the people of Kashmir.
However, in case of BJP itself it seems to be a calculated move to be “soft” on Article 370, though the party’s position vis-a-vis this “core issue” has remained wavering during the last over a decade. What its position was in early 90’s, it’s not the same today. In January 1992, the then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi along with Narendra Modi braved to reach Lal Chowk, the city centre of Srinagar to hoist the tricolour. This was only to assert that Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of India and they had vowed to continue the struggle to get the Article scraped.
Abrogation of this Article was once among three core slogans “Ayodhaya, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370” but it went down the radar slowly. In 1998 Lok Sabha elections, its abrogation almost came as a threat from BJP. But in 1999 it was not focused on. Similarly in 2004, the then BJP President Vankiah Nadu while realizing the “Vision Document” maintained that this law was necessary. BJP’s state unit with more support in Jammu division has always advocated the complete integration of state with India. But interestingly in 2008 assembly elections, when it released the manifesto, this issue was missing. Though it benefited from the Amarnath land row, it stressed upon the alleged discrimination with Jammu region. Senior BJP leader Ashok Khujuria was then asked why Article 370 is missing, he shot back saying: “It’s immaterial whether there is a mention of Article 370′s abolition or not. It is an agenda in our hearts.”
This time too it is not known whether the party would forcefully include the issue in the poll manifesto that was not released till these lines were written. However, one thing is clear that BJP is treading on a cautious path keeping in view its ambitious plan of achieving the 44+ mission. Party’s strategy is well designed. Even if it is not in a position to get a significant number of seats from Valley, but the euphoria it has created has much more impact than the parties, which are in winning position. Its tacit alliance with at least two parties in North Kashmir and entry of some prominent faces from Valley has emboldened the party. Making its presence felt in Valley is perhaps the biggest dividend it can count in the recent past. Whether people at large may like it or not, but BJP is on the scene and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed election rally in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district also symbolizes its presence.
Whether there could be a serious debate on Article 370 is not known, but one thing is clear that PM Modi has forced the NC and PDP to ground their agendas of “Autonomy and Self Rule and embraced Sajad Lone who had talked about something bigger called “Achievable Nationhood”. He engaged them in this debate to forget their political bibles.
In order to have maximum seats to occupy the larger political space in the state, the party has cleverly gone low on the contentious issue of Article 370, thus trying if not to earn goodwill but at least not to annoy the people. It is a different issue that if BJP comes to power, how it would proceed. With power in Delhi, this combination could prove deadly in the months and years to come. But one thing is clear that as of now BJP has achieved its goal to make Article 370 a poll issue.