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A TENUOUS BEGINNING
- The Congressís dealings in Kashmir will have nationwide implications

The author is former foreign secretary of India

Expressions of satisfaction about the completion of the legislative assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir were subjected to some uncertainties because of the competing claims for the chief ministership between the Congress and the Peopleís Democratic Party of Jammu and Kashmir. The reasoning of the PDP for claiming the chief ministership was that it has emerged as a major political force in the valley, as an alternative to the National Conference which stood rejected at the polls in public perception. The PDP is a regional party of the state and therefore its leading the government would increase the credibility of the government both inside Jammu and Kashmir and outside. The PDP also claimed that its manifesto was the most responsive to the aspirations of the people of the state.

The counter-rationale of the Congress was that it had a larger number of seats in the legislative assembly than the PDP, and most of the independent groups; that the Congress has greater support from independent members of the legislative assembly than the PDP, and that the Congress being the national party, its assuming the chief ministership of the state on the basis of the most recent public mandate would be a more effective counter to the separatist elements in the state. The leadership of the PDP does not have sufficient appeal in Jammu and in Ladakh.

In addition, the Congress legitimately claimed that it has greater experience in governance and in dealing with terrorist- and secessionist-infected areas, and therefore would be more capable of bringing Jammu and Kashmir back to the mainstream of democratic national politics in India. Ultimately, the Congress showed a greater sensitivity to the more pertinent considerations of national interests and of the well-being of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, rising above considerations of party aspirations and agreed to the PDP, led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, leading the new state government of Jammu and Kashmir.

General information available about discussions relating to this compromise was that Sonia Gandhi and her principal emissary, Manmohan Singh, were instinctively in favour of the ultimate decision taken of letting the PDP lead the government. But the delay in finalizing this compromise was because of senior figures in the Congress and party leaders in Jammu and Kashmir insisting on the chief ministership on the basis of the rationale which has been summarized above.

It is clear while taking the decision to let the PDP lead the new government in Jammu and Kashmir, Sonia Gandhi has conveyed timely and important signals about the Congressís approach to significant issues affecting national politics. First, she has emphasized that the partyís overall credibility and its commitment to the well-being of people are more important than any individual. Second, that national interests are a matter of higher priority than the interests of the Congress even if those interests were based on logical and rational considerations. On all counts, this will increase the credibility of the Congress not only amongst the people of Jammu and Kashmir but also in the Indian public opinion in general.

It was a difficult decision to take, given that a fair segment of Congress leaders, including leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, had different views. The new government was sworn in on November 2. A common minimum programme has been agreed upon and the broad structure of the new government is available in advance, with a deputy chief minister from the Congress and from the Jammu region. At the organizational level, there is bound to be difficult negotiations about the distribution of portfolios.

Having conceded the chief ministership, the Congress was right in demanding some of the important portfolios. Sayeed would do well not to indulge in too much bargaining on this subject. His party should be deeply conscious that the successful holding of the elections and his assuming the chief ministership are but only the initial step in dealing with the complex issues related to Jammu and Kashmir. The PDP should also rise above partisan considerations to move forward to deal with these issues.

While the common minimum programme has been agreed upon between the Congress and the PDP, one cannot shy away from the differences of approach on various issues inherent in the election manifestoes of the PDP and the Congress. A fundamental factor underpinning these differences is that while the PDPís concerns and objectives are limited to its constituency, Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the valley, the Congressís concerns and objectives have a broader and deeper national dimension.

The manner in which Congress participants in the government deal with the issues of Jammu and Kashmir has nationwide implications because the Congress is a national party. Issues related to the dialogue with secessionist groups will have to be dealt with in a manner where those committed to secessionism and violent means should not be allowed to utilize the proposed dialogue as only a tactical move to further their objectives. Although Yasin Malik and several others have been released, the problem of releasing political prisoners will have to be resolved with great care. The issue of merging the special task force with the law and order agencies of Jammu and Kashmir should be resolved in a manner where the operational efficiency of this specially trained force does not diminish, given the prospects that Pakistan will continue its intrusive activities in Jammu and Kashmir.

The new government of Jammu and Kashmir has already declared its intention to seek an early dialogue with the Centre, for the future political dispensation in Jammu and Kashmir in terms of autonomy or devolution of power. One hopes that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government does not undertake the dialogue with partisan objectives, and that the Centre will deal with the dialogue in a manner which will convey the clear message that the aim is to be responsive to the interests and aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

The three objectives on which this dialogue should focus and on which the new government of Jammu and Kashmir should concentrate are: first, to forge an autonomy or devolution package which would politically assuage the expectations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir; second, to give serious and continued attention to the social and economic development of the state in all dimensions with careful prioritization of projects and programmes, and to ensure that the devolution package also provides for the delegation of power and responsibilities internally within Jammu and Kashmir, from Srinagar to Ladakh and Jammu.

The dialogue between the state government and the Centre should be first on the agenda of the new government. Priority should also be given to deal with political groups in Jammu and Kashmir who did not participate in the elections, but who may be willing to have a discussion with the newly elected government, barring those amongst them who remained committed to the violent disruption of unity of India. Satisfactory progress in these discussions will have implications for future dialogue between India and Pakistan on the Pakistani dimensions of the Kashmir issue. The more the successes in these dialogues, the lesser would be the credibility of Pakistanís spurious claims about speaking on behalf of the Muslim citizens of India in Jammu and Kashmir. Meaningful progress in this respect would help India in curbing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

All elements in the power-structure involved in the dialogue should remember the basic and important message which the people of Jammu and Kashmir have given by participating in the legislative assembly elections despite the threat of violence. They have rejected Pakistanís advocacy of the separation of Jammu and Kashmir from India. They are convinced that a solution to the issues related to Jammu and Kashmir can be fashioned within the mainstream of the Indian democratic processes. They have clearly rejected terrorist violence both externally and internally, as a means to resolve their problems. More important, they have rejected externally-sponsored terrorist secessionism.

The Centre, the state government and the political parties should see the significance of this message and respond to it to free the people of Jammu and Kashmir from the thrall of violence and socio-political anxiety to which they have been subjected for more than a decade.

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