New Delhi: On a wintry afternoon in 2017, a Union minister sitting in his Sanchar Bhawan chamber, was on the phone, and livid. “GM saheb, bahut shikaayat sun rahe hain aapki (Mr GM, I am hearing a lot of complaints about you)…”
A visitor sitting in his chamber could make out from the conversation that it was some MTNL general manager, who had apparently committed irregularities in postings. “Sudhar jaiye, nahin to suspend ho jayiega (mend your ways or you will get suspended). I am watching you,” the minister snapped and hung up, before returning to the visitor to explain the need for a new telecom policy.
That was then-telecom minister Manoj Sinha, who took charge as the new Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Friday. His integrity and hard work endeared him to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But that’s not the only reason for his new assignment in Srinagar’s Raj Bhavan.
Politicians in Srinagar Raj Bhavan
Manoj Sinha is truly the first emissary of PM Modi in Kashmir. Karan Singh was the first governor of Jammu and Kashmir (1965-67), and was succeeded by nine governors and an L-G, until Sinha’s appointment. Only one of these 10 was a politician — Satya Pal Malik, who had a tenure of 14 months.
Karan Singh, son of former maharaja Hari Singh, was first the Regent and Sadr-e-Riyasat (head of the state), before the term was replaced by ‘governor’ in 1965. So, he wasn’t essentially a politician when he held the post.
That means that in 53 years since Karan Singh relinquished the post, a politician has occupied it for just 14 months.
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Bureaucrats, including civil servant-turned-politician Jagmohan and former RAW chief G.C. Saxena, held the office for four decades, while top retired servicemen like former Army chief K.V. Krishna Rao and Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha held it for about a decade.
Therefore, Satya Pal Malik was the first political governor of Jammu and Kashmir, albeit for just 14 months. Yet, he couldn’t be treated as the Centre’s political emissary in the Valley. A veteran political turncoat, Malik had had stints in the Congress, the Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party before he joined the BJP in 2004. His appointment as J&K governor was merely an act of political accommodation.
Manoj Sinha’s appointment is a strong policy statement. His background in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and proximity with the Prime Minister make him truly the first political emissary of the Centre in the trouble-torn Valley.
PM’s promises of statehood, elections
The biggest message the Centre has signalled through his appointment is that it is no longer looking at Kashmir from a security point of view only. Maintenance of peace, relatively, in the first year after the scrapping of J&K’s special status, was the utmost priority.
As the UT starts the second year without this status, sending a politician as the new administrator is much more than symbolism. It signals the start of crucial Stage II of Modi government’s Kashmir strategy — fulfilling the PM’s promise of “phir ek baar, Kashmir ko swarg banana hai (once again, we have to make Kashmir a paradise)”.
An efficient administrator, Sinha is expected to deliver on what Modi had said in his address to the nation two days after the scrapping of J&K’s special status — schemes on paper have to be implemented on the ground.
Sinha’s biggest challenge would be to create conditions to implement two other promises of the Prime Minister in his address to the nation: Restoration of statehood and giving the people an elected chief minister, ministers and MLAs.
Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir are at least a year away. The delimitation commission, mandated to draw and redraw the boundaries of 90 assembly constituencies in the UT, is expected to submit its report by March 2021 only. The report is likely to trigger a hugely contentious political debate, with both the regions of Jammu and Kashmir looking to gain from the exercise. It would take a while for the dust over the commission’s report to settle. The elections are likely to be held only after that.
As for the restoration of statehood, sources in the ruling BJP say the Centre is assessing the situation on the ground before taking a call on the timeline, but it is likely to be done well ahead of the elections.
“You can’t have a situation where statehood is restored and then there are demands for restoring special status to J&K. Statehood will be given only when it’s clear that the people have come to terms with the finality of special status being scrapped,” said a BJP leader from J&K.
New L-G’s biggest challenge
For the PM’s promises to be delivered, the new L-G will have to lay the groundwork by re-creating the space for mainstream political parties and their leaders. As it is, even the leaders’ year-long detention has earned them little sympathy.
National Conference leader and former CM Omar Abdullah had told ThePrint in an interview that the 5 August 2019 decision had made the lives of mainstream politicians in J&K difficult.
“Not only has it shrunk the space for the mainstream, but it also reduced us to objects of ridicule. There was no shortage of voices that said ‘acha hua, keep them detained’,” he said. “They would point fingers at Dr Farooq Abdullah and say this is what you get for saying Bharat Mata ki Jai.”
To regain the people’s trust, mainstream parties seem inclined to take hardline positions. The first indication of it came in former CM Farooq Abdullah’s call for an all-party meet on Article 370 on 5 August this year, which didn’t take place due to security reasons.
Although Omar Abdullah sees futility in demanding pre-5 August 2019 status quo ante from the Modi government, his party colleagues are learnt to be inclined to play to the gallery and raise their pitch.
Political observers in the Valley say that former CM and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, a known hardliner, is likely to make it her main issue whenever she is released from detention. And she can’t be detained forever.
L-G Manoj Sinha has a difficult task ahead. He must create space for mainstream politics when the parties and their leaders are thoroughly discredited. And there is no alternative leadership emerging in the Valley as BJP leaders in Delhi had hoped last year. Sinha will surely find the waters of the Dal Lake very choppy.