Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The staggering of the polls over seven days spread over a month may not be a tidy but is nonetheless a prudent arrangement, as underlying the threat of a poll boycott is the menace of the gun.

A Great Window of Opportunity

The government has called the separatists’ bluff with the decision to hold the Jammu & Kashmir elections.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 26 October, 2008

The window of opportunity opened by the bold decision to go ahead with general elections in J&K as scheduled must not be wasted. The Government has wisely called the separatists’ bluff. The electorate will do the rest.  The staggering of the polls over seven days spread over a month may not be a tidy but is nonetheless a prudent arrangement, as underlying the threat of a poll boycott is the menace of the gun. The invited presence of independent election observers will put these saboteurs and their pious front men on notice that they will be held accountable for sabotaging the democratic process of popular self determination. A low turn out in some polling stations or constituencies will not invalidate the exercise or the resultant mandate. It will render the obstructionists even more irrelevant than they are today.  

The Congress, National Conference and BJP have endorsed the polls. The PDP has fleshed out its proposals for “self-rule” but has been strangely coy in announcing its participation. If it misses the bus it will have none to blame but itself. The Hurriyat and other separatist groups are an unrepresentative and confused lot who seek a post-facto electoral endorsement of a pre-determined result about an aazadi that means different things to different men.

Other events provide a backdrop to the polls. Cross-LOC but as yet intra-J&K trade has commenced and marks a beginning in what both sides hope will grow quantitatively and qualitatively to embrace Indo-Pakistan commerce across other routes as well. The commissioning of the Baglihar dam and part of the Valley-segment of the J&K Railway mark two development milestones, with the opening of the Mughal Road and the Srinagar international airport to follow. These new connectivities are going to shape a new polity. Further high-level Indo-Pakistan meetings in recent weeks also signal that the larger Indo-Pakistan peace process based on the Manmohan-Musharraf proposals is still on track despite a hiccup over the Baglihar reservoir filling over which Islamabad has indicated some concern. This last has more to do with the power play of internal J&K politics in Pakistan as the so-called “lifeline” or water issue is evoked from time to time to counter internal charges of a sell-out over J&K.

Public opinion on both sides of J&K as well as in India and Pakistan and international opinion all favour a just and abiding J&K settlement. Federal and regional autonomy and self-rule will be canvassed during the ensuing polls. All the more reason that the Centre seriously apply its mind to its own negotiating position and enter into informal consultations with the Opposition so as to move at least some way towards building a national consensus on the next steps and a preferred overall outcome. This is a time for concurrent rather than sequential thinking. The latter will entail loss of momentum generated by the J&K polls and breed cynicism. The delay in getting the most critical of the Prime Minister’s five J&K task forces, that on autonomy headed by Justice Shagir Ahmed, to meet and report, derailed that welcome initiative. The fifth task force should now be written off and the Government of India must independently think through a composite package that should be open for dialogue and decision as soon as possible after the polls. Narasimha Rao had said the “the sky is the limit” within the contours of national sovereignty.

The first thing to remember is that Article 1 and Schedule 1 of the Constitution bind J&K to India. Article 370 is only a mechanism to regulate the federal relationship between Delhi and J&K. Anything beyond the three original heads of accession – foreign affairs, defence and communications - is prima facie negotiable. As long as the Centre says “no” even to totally innocuous things like designating the two top functionaries as sadr-i-riyasat and wazir-e-azam, there will be little progress. The moment the Centre says “yes” to considering the retention, abrogation or amendment of links, such as the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, Election Commission, UPSC and CAG, lively debate will commence within J&K and indeed in the Valley itself, with powerful voices arguing the merits of association. But even if the choice favours dissociation, so be it. What vital interest will be hurt? The wisdom and strength to say “yes” or  “why not” would be the best way to win the big prize even at the cost of  possibly losing some consolation prizes. Likewise, scrapping application of Article 356 matters little as long as the Centre’s “duty to protect states against external aggression and internal disturbance” under Article 355 remains. As far as regional autonomy is concerned, this can be finely differentiated across regions through creative use of Articles 258 and 258-A of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the so-called Chenab imbroglio highlights the increasingly urgent need to optimize the harnessing and utilization of Indus waters. With the uncertainties and perils of climate change rapidly closing in, there is no gainsaying the importance of joint future cooperation in the development and management of the entire middle-upper and lower Indus basin as between India and Pakistan, let alone merely J&K, as mentioned in the body of the Indus Treaty itself. Cooperation on the whole range of water-related issues would truly make boundaries irrelevant and flesh out the Manmohan-Musharraf package as nothing else. The forthcoming elections in J&K are therefore not a mere end in themselves but a grand opportunity to usher in reconciliation and change in the sub-continent.
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