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Why Govt’s Appointment of Dineshwar Sharma in J&K is an Eyewash

Dineshwar Sharma’s Kashmir mission seems doomed from the start, writes Arati Jerath.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Dineshwar Sharma’s Kashmir mission seems doomed from the start.
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The appointment of Dineshwar Sharma as the Modi government’s man for Kashmir is intriguing, both in terms of timing and intent. A week after the announcement, during which union ministers and BJP leaders contradicted each other and Sharma himself seemed unsure about his brief, there is neither clarity nor sincerity. Is the move just an eyewash then, another jumla unleashed on the Kashmiris like games that governments in New Delhi have played in the past?

Listen to the story here.

To Appease America?

Consider first the timing. The announcement came like a bolt out of the blue just a day before a crucial visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to New Delhi. Tillerson was on his maiden trip to India and New Delhi was on its toes preparing for discussions with a key figure in the Trump administration.

Join the dots and the conclusion is inescapable. Sharma’s appointment ties in with the Tillerson visit as a bid to pre-empt American pressure during the inevitable discussion on Kashmir, especially in the context of India-Pakistan ties. It’s a moot point whether the naming of an interlocutor for Kashmir in any way softened what Tillerson had to say to Indian leaders about American concerns over the sharply deteriorating security environment in a strategically sensitive region.

The impression that the move was a sop to the Americans is reinforced by the confusion evident in the government over Sharma’s role. There’s no agreement at the top either on his designation or on the scope of his assignment which probably explains why Sharma is sounding suspiciously unsure of himself. Poor man resorted to mystifying comparisons between Kashmir and Syria while talking about his mission.

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Interlocutor or Emissary?

The first thing to be settled is Sharma’s designation. Is he an interlocutor or an emissary? Home Minister Rajnath Singh says interlocutor. Minister of state in the PMO and the BJP’s Jammu face, Jitendra Singh who is the MP from Udhampur, says no. He insists that Sharma is merely an emissary.

Now there’s a very fine distinction between the two but in the context of the BJP’s political interests in Jammu, as represented by Jitendra Singh, even one degree of separation becomes crucial.

An interlocutor participates in a dialogue while an emissary is an envoy sent on an errand.

Rajnath Singh made it quite clear that Sharma would have wide-ranging powers to talk to anyone and everyone in the Valley. There will be no restrictions on him, he said at his press conference. It was a broad hint that that Sharma could well open a dialogue with the Hurriyat.

Jitendra Singh contradicted him almost immediately. He said there was no question of talking to separatist leaders who, he claimed, indulge in violence and hawala transactions.

A couple of days later, BJP general secretary and driving force of influential think tank India Foundation, Ram Madhav, muddied the waters further by plunging into the ongoing dispute. And why shouldn’t Sharma talk to the Hurriyat, he asked. He said Sharma had the mandate to talk to the separatists if they were willing to engage in a dialogue with the Centre.

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Sharma’s Punctured Credibility, Courtesy BJP

Ram Madhav has played a vital role in writing the Modi government’s Kashmir policy and helped to put together the BJP-PDP alliance. Presumably, he knows what he is talking about.

But Sharma doesn’t seem quite sure what he is supposed to do. The last inquiry revealed that he was still waiting to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a clear brief. He has, of course, met Rajnath Singh but the home minister only talked in generalities.

In any case, on Kashmir, it’s always the prime minister who drives policy, not the home minister. And this is even truer for the Modi government where all policy decisions are centralised in the PMO.

By speaking in different voices and spreading confusion, government ministers and BJP leaders punctured Sharma’s credibility even before he reached Srinagar. But there are two other drawbacks that Sharma will have to overcome to be effective.

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First Challenge: His Background

One is his background. He is a former IB chief and while he may have good contacts in J&K (some reports suggest that he has backchannels to moderate Hurriyat leaders), he is not a political person. It is going to be difficult for him to have a conversation with a people that has been demanding azaadi for 70 years.

Even as Congress leader P Chidambaram, National Conference chief Omar Abdullah and others spar with the BJP over the meaning of the term, it is obvious that azaadi has a political connotation. It cannot be fitted into a security paradigm.

The choice of an ex-IB man as the interlocutor for Kashmir only underlines that the Modi government continues to see the issue through the security prism. It has failed to grasp that Kashmir is a political problem that needs a political solution.

This is something that former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee understood instinctively despite his BJP background. By facilitating the ascent of the late PDP leader Mufti Mohd Syed as chief minister in 2002, at the cost of breaking his alliance with the National Conference, Vajpayee earned himself the undying goodwill of the people of Kashmir.

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Second Challenge: Lack of Contact with PM

Sharma’s other handicap is that he does not have a direct line to the PM. The most successful interlocutors, G Parthasarathy and N N Vohra, had access to the prime ministers of the day.

Parathasarathy, for instance, was handpicked by Indira Gandhi and could pick up the phone and talk to her any time he wanted. He hammered out the 1975 accord between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah which paved the way for the latter to return to mainstream politics and become chief minister of J&K. It did not resolve the basic dispute over Kashmir but the problem was shelved for a while.

Similarly, Vohra too had a hot line to Vajpayee and played a key role in bringing the Hurriyat back to the dialogue table in 2003. LK Advani as home minister had several rounds of discussions with the separatists. Again, there was no resolution but peace prevailed in the Valley for some time.

Sharma’s mission seems doomed from the start, suggesting that the Modi government is not really serious about a dialogue, let alone resolving Kashmir.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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