It remains to be seen if the recent visit of the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Kashmir will have a long-term impact on the situation in the valley. The visit, undoubtedly, was high on symbolism, but it is too early to say whether Mr Vajpayee’s visit to the valley will help to generate a process that could eventually lead to peace and stability in the state and beyond. Mr Vajpayee was the first prime minister to address a public rally in Srinagar after a gap of 15 years, and this speaks for the troubles that the state has witnessed during the period. The prime minister’s speech was, in many ways, vintage Vajpayee. He spoke without a prepared text and was at his poetic best, even lacing his comments with Kashmiri poetry. Mr Vaj- payee reaffirmed his support to the government of Mr Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and, surprisingly, once again revived the possibility of a dialogue with Pakistan.
It seems, however, going by media reports, that the 10,000-large group of Kashmiris who heard Mr Vaj- payee was generally disappointed. They had expected Mr Vajpayee to announce a package of economic and political incentives for the state. Indeed, in the weeks before the visit, even sources from within the state government had suggested that the prime minister would announce the “mother of all packages” during the speech. In reality, nothing of that sort happened. While Mr Vajpayee’s speech was strong on generalities, there were few specific promises made to Kashmiris. The speech seems to have caused some anguish even to members of the state cabinet who had also expected some largesse from the prime minister. Mr Vajpayee seemed to have taken note of the disappointment that he had caused, and was more expansive the next day.
During his speech to the Kashmir University convocation, and during the opening remarks at the press conference in Srinagar, he was more focussed and generous. On at least three fronts, the Kashmiris should have reasons to be pleased. First, the prime minister stressed that the Centre was prepared to engage in a dialogue with every section of Kashmiri opinion and that the Centre’s latest interlocutor, Mr N. N. Vohra, had been mandated to do as much. This dialogue could include members of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, who — not surprisingly — responded positively to Mr Vajpayee’s remarks. Second, Mr Vajpayee promised to set up a task force that would recommend important measures to create employment opportunities for educated unemployed Kashmiris. Given that unemployment is a major problem in the state, this was a very welcome decision. Third, Mr Vajpayee emphasized that the Centre would provide additional funds to the state and make a determined effort to ensure the completion of ongoing power projects. In other words, Mr Vajpayee’s visit has generated considerable hope in the Kashmir valley. The challenge is to ensure that this hope does not once again collapse into gloom and cynicism.