When Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to speak at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium on 7 November, it was the eve of the Bihar election result and he was still the invincible national leader who seemed destined to rule India for at least a decade. He performed as one, taking the stage and dominating the scene. His fluent oratory, its booming highs and the drawn, reassuring lows, energised the packed crowd. He also announced Rs 80,000 crore package with a small floodcentric component, awaited since PDP- BJP coalition took power in March.
However, as he concluded his address, the audience and his coalition partner PDP weren’t finished yet. They wanted him to take over from where his NDA predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee had left off. They wanted him to announce a political initiative on Kashmir, extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan, something that Vajpayee had done from the same venue and the stage in 2003 and which the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in his preceding speech had credited “for giving Kashmir ten years of peace”.
However, Modi didn’t go the distance and in that revealed his limitations as a leader. He implicitly snubbed Mufti by declaring that he needed nobody’s “advice” on Kashmir. He quoted for a good measure the Vajpayee’s terms of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat but divested them of their profound political import. Vajpayee had invoked Insaniyat as a mechanism to talk to separatist groups outside the ambit of the constitution, but Modi interpreted the term in its strict literal meaning.
“Without Insaniyat, we are nothing,” Modi said.
Similarly, Jamhooriyat meant the large turnout in the last Assembly polls in the state. He, however, did elaborate a bit on Kashmiriyat, equating it with Sufism, which teaches co-existence.
“Without Kashmiriyat, India is incomplete. Sufi tradition has emerged from this land and this tradition has taught us oneness and strength of unity,” Modi said a few days after ending his election campaign in Bihar where he addressed 30 rallies.
As he spoke, Srinagar was under complete lockdown to prevent separatist groups from leading their parallel “Million March”. Police and paramilitary personnel had fanned out across the city setting up checkpoints with the intention to impede easy movement. As the stadium throbbed with activity, reverberating to the cries of “Modi, Modi”, the silence beyond its modest confines was deafening.
And as PM left and the restrictions eased off, protests and stone-throwing returned to many parts of city. At Zainakote, on the outskirts of Srinagar, a 22-year-old engineering student Gowhar Nazir Dar was hit on his head by a teargas shell, succumbing to his injuries on his way to the hospital. Following day, his griefstricken grandmother Fatima Begum, 65, too passed away. The deaths served as a reminder that while development packages have a role, without a comprehensive political engagement, involving Pakistan also, Kashmir problem will only compound further.
Later on Modi delivered another speech at Chanderkot, where he inaugurated Stage-II of the 450 MW Baglihar project. But he didn’t deviate from the development mantra as the remedy to the ills of Jammu and Kashmir.
Did he miss a major opportunity to step out of his political straitjacket on the state? The public perception in the Valley would indicate that he did. The PDP and also a large swathe of population in the state expected him to do a Vajpayee and reach out to Pakistan. They expected a gesture for the Hurriyat too. And many wanted him to give a clear-cut message of communal harmony to the country. More so, now that the Bihar election is over. A message that would have certainly found a national and international resonance especially after the growing clamour over rising intolerance and polarisation in the country. More so, because it would have come from a political stage in the summer capital of India’s only Muslim majority state. But Modi chose not to.
“Modi didn’t realise such huge possibilities of a rally in Kashmir,” said a senior PDP leader. A local columnist Naseer Ahmad put the PM’s silence down to his ideological limitations. “Vajpayee too was also ideologically-rooted. But he utilised his political stature to break free and dealt with issues unburdened by the ideological commitments,” Ahmad said. “Modi also has stature but he has so far chosen to play politics safely and operate strictly within ideological boundaries which have only narrowed by the day.”