BJP stoops to conquer: Is it the endgame in Jammu and Kashmir?

Former J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (file photo)

At the end, Narendra Modi will be remembered in Kashmir as a crafty politician who ditched a Kashmiri leader for selfish gains. BJP was waiting to strike when it could be used to stir up emotions

The notorious war room of the Bhartiya Janata Party is ever-ready with dirty tricks to try and win the next general election, due in six months. As its mandarins were worried about the rapidly waning magic of Narendra Modi for an absolute victory, they took to the arsenal to dig out the ultimate weapon—Kashmir—that has the potential to rekindle the ‘tough-on-anti-nationals’ credential of its leader.

So, when in Delhi, BJP’s Kashmir-in-charge Ram Madhav was announcing his party’s break up with Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and the resultant collapse of the Mehbooba Mufti government there, it was the final scene of a script written long back.

The BJP had all along been playing to Mufti’s tunes, creating an illusion of being subservient to the relatively-inexperienced Kashmiri politician even at the cost of facing a backlash in its stronghold of Jammu, while, in reality it was patiently waiting to strike at a proper time when it could use Kashmir as a prop to stir up national emotions for mobilising people to vote for BJP.

Yes, the optics, chemistry and politics of BJP’s withdrawal from J&K government at a crucial time when terrorism remains uncontained, radicalisation of youth and their recruitment in large numbers into terrorist organisations is at an all-time high, the public unrest against the alliance government’s policies is at its peak and a cantankerous neighbour is keeping the border tensions alive, the BJP conveniently dumped Mehbooba and wriggled itself out of all the responsibility of bringing the situation under control.

The party, which was part of the coalition government, is now blaming Mehbooba Mufti for all the failures and hailing itself as a saviour or peoples’ and national interests. The irony could not be stranger than this.

Party insiders say the decision to abandon the PDP was finalised during Ram Madhav’s last visit to Kashmir—ostensibly to attend an Iftaar party hosted by Sajjad Lone, a minister in the Mehbooba Mufti government, whom BJP wants to crown as Chief Minister one day. Lone has never hidden his cozy relationship with the saffron party. Madhav met leaders of all opposition parties—National Conference, Congress, the CPI(M) etc—and based on their feedback produced a report which claimed everyone was upset with the Mufti government for its inability to contain violence in Kashmir.

In the coming weeks and months, the Army’s stranglehold on terrorists, their over ground workers (OWGs) and even stone throwing youth will increase and BJP can easily take credit for the resultant ‘successes’—something that was impossible with Mehbooba Mufti using her caveat against a totally muscular approach towards non-combatants like stone-throwers and even OWGs and asking police to file FIRs against Army men for violation of human rights during operations.

Post-Mehbooba, BJP is hoping to revive its image in the Hindu-majority Jammu region. It has lined up a slew of projects like deporting Rohingya settlers from Jammu and building more facilities for the border residents who are facing incessant shelling from across the border. All these promises had remained unfulfilled and it appears the delay was deliberate

In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the BJP leaders and their troll army can thump their chests for ‘acting against separatists (including Mehbooba Mufti as well) in Kashmir and thereby project Modi as a leader who sacrificed his party’s government in J&K for national interests.

The party can claim it renounced power to avenge the honour of Armymen like Aurangzeb (from Mendhar in Jammu), who was killed by terrorists in south Kashmir while he was going on leave to celebrate Eid. It will surely take credit for avenging the killing of journalist Shujaat Bukhari, with whom it had no love lost during his lifetime.

All this, according to party insiders, has the potential to bury people’s anger at Modi government’s anti-people policies like demonetisation and GST that added to the economic slowdown and peoples’ woes and jobless growth. Modi’s spin doctors saw in Kashmir a great potential to ignite passions across the country and project him as a ‘strong and decisive’ leader of India.

A tough Kashmir approach has the potential to unite the Hindus, believes BJP, as Modi will re-emerge as a leader who has guts to take a stand against (Muslim) separatists.

To be fair to Mehbooba Mufti, she failed to get the first hint dropped by the BJP at the abrupt ending of their engagement: it was when Home Minister Rajnath Singh spurned her recommendation to extend the Ramzan ceasefire beyond Eid-ul-Fitr that she should have sensed the unfolding script.

Till then, the wily BJP leaders seemed to be eating out of her hands by agreeing to slow down operations against terrorists during Ramzan, allow withdrawal of cases against stone throwers, keeping mum on the issue of Rohingya settlers etc. Again the Home Minister had offered talks to separatists on her request. The optics of BJP’s Kashmir policy was going as per Mehbooba’s wishes.

The PDP had cited a relatively peaceful environment, lessening of general tension and total halt in the recruitment of local youth in terror groups—a fact corroborated by Army commanders and police—as reasons for continuing the ceasefire. In the meanwhile, Mehbooba’s government was trying to work through back channels to get the separatists in Kashmir to talk to the Centre and the chief minister had no clue about the saffron party’s hidden agenda.

In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the BJP leaders and their troll army can thump their chests for ‘acting against separatists (including Mehbooba Mufti as well) in Kashmir and thereby project Modi as a leader who sacrificed his party’s government in J&K for national interests.

The PDP admits Mehbooba and her advisers were taken aback by BJP’s decision. “They pulled the rug under Mehboobaji’s feet; it’s a case of betrayal,” said a senior PDP leader and advisor to Mehbooba. Asking that he not be named, he debunked the BJP claims that PDP had any different approach to tackling terrorism. “We have taken all decisions including the release of 12,000 youth against whom cases had been filed for pelting stones in consultation with the Centre and BJP ministers, who were in the cabinet,” he said.

Besides, the move to pardon the first time stone-throwers followed the recommendations of the Centre’s interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma and not the PDP.

The PDP leader says the real failure of the BJP in Kashmir was that the Centre was unable to create jobs for the youth in the state where unemployment rate at 40 percent remains the highest in the country. “We worked with BJP despite people like Ajit Doval (National Security Advisor) being at the helm of Kashmir policy and in spite of BJP’s known bias against Muslims,” he said. The PDP believed going with BJP would ensure smooth flow of funds to and development in the state.

Mehbooba Mufti’s image has apparently taken a double beating, for first engaging with an ideologically distant BJP and now being slighted and being dumped for no apparent fault of hers. She has become a butt of taunts and jokes on the social media with people like Nayeema Mehjoor, a former journalist who was appointed as chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, saying “PDP was facing natural justice for betraying people of Kashmir.”

Modi will be hated even as Vajpayee remembered fondly by Kashmiris

Politically, will this mean a free run for the National Conference led by the Abdullahs in Kashmir where elections are due in late 2020 while BJP’s game plan of having Lone as chief minister will take time to materialise?

Post-Mehbooba, BJP is hoping to revive its image in the Hindu-majority Jammu region. It has lined up a slew of projects like deporting Rohingya settlers from Jammu and building more facilities for the border residents who are facing incessant shelling from across the border. All these promises had remained unfulfilled and it appears the delay was deliberate.

In Governor’s rule, the BJP will get the advantage of total and direct control of J&K from Delhi. Is it willing to bite too much in the interim period to get its political targets like removing Article 370 and launching a no-hold-barred operation against Islamic terrorists in Kashmir achieved?

Modi government’s utter failure in Kashmir was its lack of an imaginative policy on Pakistan. The party, in its short-sighted view, failed to understand that the two are interlinked; its leaders didn’t even bother to find out how their own leader Atal Behari Vajpayee had engaged Pakistan on one side and with a single sentence: “insaniyat ke dayre mein baat karenge (We will hold talks with separatists under the banner of humanity),” had won over the hearts and minds of people of Kashmir.

Modi failed on both fronts despite his loud talks of conducting surgical strikes against Pakistan and numerous visits to Kashmir. At the end, Modi will be remembered as a crafty Indian who ditched a Kashmiri leader for selfish gains as against Vajpayee emerging as a tall leader and a statesman, whose name rekindles sweet memories in the minds of Kashmiris even today.

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