Minutes before Amit Shah announced that Article 370 is history, the Congress had an opportunity to smell the coffee. This when old party loyalist and its chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, Bhubaneshwar Kalita quit, finding the party’s position on Jammu and Kashmir unpalatable.
“I was asked by the party to issue a whip but this is against the mood of the nation. The party is on its way towards destruction and I cannot be a contributor to it,” the MP from Assam wrote in his parting letter.
But the Congress led by its old warhorses like Ghulam Nabi Azad refused to see the writing on the wall. Probably such is the magnitude of the exodus from the Congress since 23 May that a sense of deja vu has set in. The fact that Kalita mentioned Kashmir and the mood of the nation as the reasons for his resignation was lost in that chalta hai, jaane do template reaction to leaders pressing the exit button.
There is a message in it. The prophets of doom in the Congress have been denouncing the decisions on Kashmir because they see this development through the narrow prism of Kashmir. The difference between the Congress and the BJP is precisely this.
Congress is looking at Kashmir, BJP is looking at India.
What the Congress does not have is its ear to the ground. The fact that regional parties that otherwise talk big on federalism voted with the BJP, is proof that they understood the popular sentiment. Not in Kashmir, where the likes of AAP, BJD, TDP, TRS, YSRCP do not have stakes but in their own backyard.
Talk to an average non-Kashmiri in a Hyderabad, Bhopal or Jaipur today. With no personal stakes involved, he or she is a sucker for Narendra Modi’s brand of muscular nationalism. He has bought into the BJP’s slogan of one nation, one flag, one Constitution, one tax. He does not find Modi’s move unjust, asking why should there be special privileges for one state. Fueling this sentiment is Amit Shah’s disclosure that the Centre spends Rs 27000 on each Kashmiri compared to the Rs 8200 on any other Indian.
You can argue about the right or wrong of such ignorance about the historical situation in Kashmir. You can argue that Kashmir is easily the most difficult state to govern, that the Kashmiris torn between Indian forces and the militants need to be treated with soft hands. You can argue that in a democracy, you don’t send 35000 boots on the ground, lock down the state and change its status, borders and privileges within a few hours.
But try telling that to the rest of India, that looks at Kashmir as a troubled hotspot rather than as a paradise on earth. From where the only news that comes is bad news. A state perpetually living in the shadow of the gun. A state where soldiers go to often return home in coffins. In his ignorance, this average Indian therefore sees nothing new or different in extra mobilisation of forces or curfew imposed in Kashmir.
The regional parties understood this mood on the street but not the Congress. What helped the BJP also is the lack of credibility of the Jammu and Kashmir political leaders. They understood their traction with the people is limited in a state where non-political players, with backing from Pakistan, are a potent force as well. That limited appeal of the Abdullahs and the Muftis was neutralised by first putting them under house arrest and then formally arresting them.
Few know the power of optics better than Narendra Modi. Though Article 370 has been on the BJP (and before that, the Jan Sangh) agenda for close to 70 years, the decision raises visions of a Modi daring to take the bull by its horns. For an India impatient with no solution to the Kashmir dispute, this move is preferable to living with status quo. Brute force looks like macho dare.
But the Modi-Shah duo took care to adopt a carrot-and-stick approach. It connected the lack of peace and development in the Valley with Article 370. In Amit Shah’s book, 370 was at the heart of the entire dispute. Shah has now shown the dream of progress in Kashmir in the next five years, juxtaposing it with 70 years of living with Article 370.
“Give us five years, we will make Jammu & Kashmir the best state in the country,” Shah said in the Rajya Sabha.
P Chidambaram spoke about the “monstrosity” in `dismembering’ a state to a Union Territory and that it is okay to have “asymmetric distribution of powers between the Centre and different states”. But constitutional arguments don’t prevail in an ecosystem that loves the feel-good factor of lofty promises that hold out huge hope. Chidambaram has a point when he says what has happened in Kashmir could be replicated in a Nagaland or a Mizoram but the party refuses to learn from mistakes. It needs to speak to the aam aadmi in the language he comprehends.
Round one of the narrative has gone to Modi and Shah.