Although the comments of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the new chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, on Pakistan’s “positive role” in the conduct of the state’s assembly elections late last year have drawn much flak, there is no denying the fact that Rawalpindi has long had leverage in the state through its support to separatism and militancy. All of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s predecessors, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, have had to deal with this external dimension to Kashmir. What is more interesting than the CM’s infelicitous comments is the agreement between the BJP and PDP on a common approach towards Pakistan.
For one, it underlines the importance of engaging Pakistan. It points to the fact that “the Union government has recently initiated several steps to normalise the relationship with Pakistan. The coalition government will seek to support and strengthen the approach and initiatives taken by the government to create a reconciliatory environment and build stakes for all in the peace and development within the subcontinent”.
It is probably entirely accidental that the new understanding between the PDP and BJP on talking to Pakistan came just a couple of days before foreign secretary S. Jaishankar travelled to Islamabad. But Modi’s decision to send the foreign secretary to Pakistan to explore the prospects of reviving the peace process has certainly helped bridge some of the political distance between the BJP and PDP.
In juggling the internal and external dimensions of the Kashmir question, Modi is following the path cut by Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the tenure of the first NDA government and followed by Manmohan Singh. Modi, however, is in a much better position than either Vajpayee or Singh.
India is a lot stronger than in the late 1990s, when Vajpayee launched the peace process under trying circumstances. Unlike Singh, Modi has the will and the capacity to make bold moves towards Pakistan. Even more important, Pakistan today is probably more vulnerable to terrorism than it was a decade and a half ago. During his talks in Islamabad, Jaishankar was expected to get a sense, first hand, of what the new political possibilities for a sustained dialogue with Pakistan are.
The internal and external in Kashmir come together in the form of the Hurriyat, which has long acted as Pakistan’s voice in the Valley. The joint Kashmir agenda, which saw some hard negotiations between the BJP and PDP in recent weeks, notes that “Vajpayee had initiated a dialogue process with all political groups, including the Hurriyat Conference, in the spirit of ‘insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat aur Jamhooriyat’”. Promising to seek a comprehensive peace process, the two parties say that their coalition government in Srinagar “will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders, which will include all political groups irrespective of their ideological views and predilections.”
It may be recalled that Modi broke off talks with Pakistan last August, objecting to Islamabad’s engagement with the Hurriyat. Modi has made clear that negotiations on the external dimension must be strictly bilateral. There is no room for the Hurriyat there. But by agreeing to talk to the Hurriyat as an “internal stakeholder”, the Modi government has created some space for itself. New Delhi is now saying that it is ready for separate talks with Islamabad and the Hurriyat. Parallel they may be, trilateral they are not. Hardline factions of Hurriyat leaders have not sounded enthusiastic about talking to Delhi. But does it really matter what the Hurriyat thinks, if Delhi and Islamabad agree on a formula?
LINE OF CONTROL
In a meaty part of the shared vision for J&K, the BJP and PDP called for “enhancing people-to-people contact on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), encouraging civil society exchanges, taking travel, commerce, trade and business across the LoC to the next level and opening new routes across all three regions to enhancing connectivity”. If the first cross-LoC confidence-building measures (CBMs) were initiated under Vajpayee, the UPA government significantly expanded them. But mounting military tensions along the LoC and the growing political mistrust between Delhi and Islamabad have taken away the spirit of these CBMs.
The BJP-PDP programme, however, does not talk about the most important CBM that the Vajpayee government negotiated with Pakistan — the ceasefire along the LoC. With the ceasefire breaking down over the last few years, the two parties have talked about humanitarian assistance to all those affected by the intense shelling across the LoC. If the Modi government can restore the ceasefire as part of the resumption of talks with Pakistan, strengthen the existing CBMs across the LoC and unveil new ones, the external dimension to J&K could change for the better and create a conducive environment for the ambitious internal agenda for development articulated by the BJP and PDP.