|Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif a day after his swearing-in in May
New Delhi, Aug. 19: The decision to call off foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan has more to do with the BJP’s domestic agenda and less to do with the Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy.
At the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road in New Delhi, Amit Shah, the new party president, is fine-tuning “Mission 44+”, which cannot realistically co-exist with any breakthroughs in relations with Islamabad.
“Mission 44+” is the codename for Shah’s strategy to repeat the BJP’s good showing in the recent Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir when Assembly elections are held later this year.
The BJP hopes to capture power in the state and, in tandem with its majority government at the Centre, make a daring effort to achieve the party’s long-cherished dream of abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution.
The party mobilised its core across the country during the campaign for the Lok Sabha polls on a plank of abolishing the special status for Jammu and Kashmir, among other issues.
Its 2014 manifesto unambiguously stated: “BJP reiterates its stand on the Article 370… and remains committed to the abrogation of this article.”
Detailed analysis of the Lok Sabha results, when the BJP won three of Jammu and Kashmir’s six parliamentary seats, suggests that if that performance is repeated or improved upon, the party could hypothetically come out of the Assembly elections with 37 seats from the Jammu region and four from Ladakh.
The Jammu, Ladakh and Udhampur Lok Sabha seats, which the BJP won this year, make up a total of 41 Assembly segments. If the party bags these seats, it will only need three more to form a government in the state.
Shah’s strategy has been codenamed “Mission 44+” because the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly has 87 seats and 44 constitutes a simple majority.
Conversations across the board and reading between the lines imply that the BJP’s specialised cells, which function like think tanks, have concluded that if relations with Islamabad improve before the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, any attempt to tamper with Article 370 under BJP governments in Srinagar and New Delhi will leave Prime Minister Narendra Modi vulnerable to charges of damaging India-Pakistan relations.
However, if relations are frozen in the run up to the formation of a new government in Srinagar and Article 370 is tampered with in an atmosphere where India and Pakistan are already in a bitter but subdued state of hostility, the fallout is likely to be much less severe.
If the status quo is bad relations, the conventional wisdom in the RSS also appears to be that the ground will be more fertile for ending the special status for Jammu and Kashmir.
As if on such cue, Modi last week shed the velvet gloves with which Nawaz Sharif was received in New Delhi in May and spoke harshly about Pakistan’s cross-border policy.
In the capital’s familiar circles where foreign policy is a staple of analysis and discussions, nobody is taking seriously the government’s claim that the August 25 bilateral talks in Islamabad were called off because Pakistan’s high commissioner met Kashmiri separatists as a prelude to the talks between foreign secretaries.
It is not just that Islamabad’s envoys have been meeting Hurriyat leaders and others during NDA and UPA dispensations: the signals and atmospherics during such meetings tell their own tales by way of gauging the temperature of bilateral ties.
In 1994, when relations were particularly bad, the then high commissioner, Riaz Khokhar, received separatist leaders with great fanfare at the Pakistan Day reception at the mission. But he also snubbed the chief guest sent by the Indian government, the minister of state for external affairs, R.L. Bhatia, by leaving him unattended.
By all indications, the latest meeting with separatists was civil and devoid of drama, suggesting that Pakistan assumed it was business as usual.
What the Pakistanis did not take into account was the mood in the ruling party. With the euphoria of victory in Udhampur — to cite one example — where a little known medical doctor, Jitendra Singh of the BJP, defeated the long-serving state leader and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad by 60,000 votes, adrenalin is running high in the party.
Singh, now a key player because of his position as a minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, said within minutes of his taking charge of the new office that the process of abrogating Article 370 had already begun.
Those who dismissed his remark on May 27 as off-the-cuff are having second thoughts with yesterday’s announcement that Sujatha Singh will not go to Islamabad to meet her counterpart and resume talks between the foreign secretaries.
Singh’s assertion about Article 370, the eviction of the UN Monitoring Group for India and Pakistan from their decades-old government property, Modi’s Leh speech and the precipitation of a situation where bilateral talks are in suspense clearly have a pattern which has to be seen in conjunction with the BJP manifesto.
In 1998, no one took the portion of the BJP manifesto about the nuclear option seriously until Atal Bihari Vajpayee tested the bomb and took everyone by surprise. The developments on Pakistan may turn out to be another such surprise on Article 370.
If the BJP’s game plan is followed through, it will be as much of a diplomatic challenge as the Pokhran II nuclear tests. Since Kashmir is still on the files of the UN, the Security Council is certain to become seized of any changes to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
There is no guarantee that the US will swing in support of India since its critical interests in Afghanistan can only be protected by Pakistan. There is speculation that the latest incidence of Chinese border incursions may be a message to India not to rile Beijing’s all-weather friends in Islamabad.
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