| Vajpayee in Gangtok. (PTI)
New Delhi, April 14: When Atal Bihari Vajpayee begins his two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir on Friday, he will become the first Prime Minister to address a public rally in Srinagar since militancy broke out in 1989. Rajiv Gandhi last addressed a public meeting in the Valley in 1987.
Given the high regard in which the people of Kashmir hold Vajpayee, a visit is long overdue. Their anger and frustration at New Delhi and its policies have not rubbed on to Vajpayee. Despite all odds, he remains one of the most popular leaders in the state.
“The people of Kashmir do not smear Vajpayee with the same brush that they use for other political leaders of the country,” an aide of Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said.
“The Kashmiris believe he is a man of peace and is genuinely interested in finding an honourable solution to the state’s problems,” he added.
At the Srinagar rally, Vajpayee is expected to make a few populist announcements. On the cards are incentives to set up industry, writing off the state’s debts to the Centre and some recruitment policy initiatives, possibly to fill up vacancies created by the mass exodus of Central government employees from the state.
Mufti has been urging the Centre to fill up these posts locally. People are hoping Vajpayee may also consider freeing political prisoners who have no cases against them. No major political initiative or announcement on an autonomy package is, however, expected.
Vajpayee has solidly backed Mufti’s healing touch policy and believes development and good governance is what the state requires. Though Mufti heads a non-NDA government, Delhi has so far been entirely supportive.
Mufti will share the dais with the Prime Minister at the rally. This has angered the National Conference. There is already a move by the Abdullahs to keep their distance from the ruling coalition at the Centre, especially the BJP.
Vajpayee will also deliver the main convocation address to professors and students of Kashmir University. This will be a singular honour as a large number of staff and students of the university are extremely critical of India. Many are staunch supporters of the Hurriyat Conference and look to it to “free” Kashmir from Delhi’s rule.