The invitation of the deputy prime minister, Mr L.K. Advani, to separatists in Jammu and Kashmir for talks reflects the changing ground realities in the state. The latest offer by the deputy prime minister should not, however, suggest that a political breakthrough in Jammu and Kashmir is on the anvil. Mr Advani made the offer while addressing a news conference in Srinagar, on the sidelines of the meeting of the inter-state council. He was reacting to statements made by the leadership of the umbrella separatist alliance, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, that they would be willing to carry out a dialogue with the political leadership in New Delhi but not through civil servants or former bureaucrats. While Mr Advani said that both the prime minister and he were willing to meet separatist leaders informally in Delhi, an official dialogue would have to be carried out through the officially designated interlocutor, Mr N.N. Vohra. This softened attitude on the part of Mr Advani as well as the separatist leadership is indicative of the correlation of forces that is currently operative in the state. The APHC is no longer, if it ever was, a monolithic pro-Pakistan, anti-India organization. The current chairman of the outfit, Moulvi Abbas Ansari, is a pragmatic politician who has been realistic enough to have realized that there is little possibility of a tripartite dialogue between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris. Under the circumstances, recognizing also that the APHC is beginning to get totally marginalized, the chairman has taken a prudent political initiative. Moreover, Pakistanís hold on the Hurriyat is also beginning to weaken. The departure of the hardliner Jamat-e-Islami leader, Mr Ali Shah Geelani, from the Hurriyat executive and the continued presence on it of the moderate Peopleís Conference leader, Mr Bilal Lone, is reflective of this new reality. New Delhi clearly also believes that this moment may be right to arrive at a modus vivendi with the separatist leadership.
There are, however, two potential problems on the horizon. First, it is not clear what the Centre can offer in a deal with the separatists. It is common knowledge that there has been little thinking within the bureaucracy or the political leadership about what should constitute the bottomline in Kashmir. Second, if Pakistani or pro-Pakistani forces feel that New Delhi is about to do a deal with a section of separatists, they will do their best to sabotage the process. Indeed, the recent terrorist incidents in Srinagar signal what might be a new phase of violence in the state. In sum, while a dialogue is critical, it is essential that the Centre proceeds cautiously and does its homework before public expectations are heightened once again.