First Person | A Moment for Modi

Dreams of a chronic optimist

Ghazala Wahab

Overcoming my reservations and tempering my prejudice, I am willing to make my peace with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. No, I am not buying into the government’s claims of development; only a person who has mortgaged her thinking faculties would do that. Neither am I oblivious to blatant majoritarianism that is being passed off as cultural and social rejuvenation. Instead, I am wilfully submitting to the absolute, almost brute power, that Prime Minister Modi holds. After all, in a democracy how can one argue with the primacy of the popular mandate? I cannot be quarrelling with the majority of my country people.

Add to this, Modi’s Midas Magic (corniness of the phrase be excused please) as far as shaping public opinion is concerned — Whatever he utters becomes Gospel for the people. Clearly, the joke about selling snow to the Eskimos was made for him. Today, he is in that rare and coveted position that leaders worldwide crave for, in which he can persuade the ill-informed majority of this country to believe whatever he wishes them to. Who could have imagined that Modi would be able to successfully sell his decision about demonetisation to those very people who were worst affected by it!

No other Indian leader has had this kind of sway over the public in several decades. Hence, unlike several of his predecessors, Prime Minister Modi today is actually in a position to take some extremely harsh, even future-altering, decisions pertaining to India’s national security; and what’s more, he can also get the public to approve these decisions as something meant for the larger good of the country.

Take Kashmir for instance. The first prime minister from Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Atal Behari Vajpayee, used to refer to the Kashmir problem as the Gordian knot, which needed untangling. He made some efforts towards that, including reaching out to Pakistan. During his historic (as well as high on histrionics) bus journey to Pakistan, he announced upon reaching Lahore that, ‘India welcomes sustained discussions on all outstanding issues, including on Jammu and Kashmir… The solution of complex, outstanding issues can only be sought in an atmosphere free from prejudice and by adopting the path of balance, moderation and realism.’

At home he asserted that he was willing to talk with the Kashmiri people about the resolution within the framework of humanity, thereby vaguely suggesting that he would not be constrained by the Constitution of India. However, before he could put his words to action, his government lost the election. Even if it hadn’t, Vajpayee was heading a coalition government and hence his flexibility was largely limited to rhetoric.

His successor Manmohan Singh, who actually managed to reach within the touching distance of the resolution, thereby changing the dynamics of India-Pakistan relations, was equally crippled. In both the tenures, his government was a fellowship of some likeminded and some opportunist political parties. Besides, Singh was neither a politically powerful leader with a ground base, nor an orator. Perhaps, that is the reason why despite having made enormous progress in back channel talks with Pakistan on Kashmir, he couldn’t muster the stamina or the courage for the last mile. He was conscious of his limitations and knew that he would not be able to sell the idea of the bilateral resolution to the people of India brought up on the staple of Kashmir being an inviolable part of India. Moreover, BJP, with its brand of ultra-nationalism, would have never accepted a resolution negotiated by the Congress party.

Prime Minister Modi suffers from no such constraints. In a manner of speaking, Kashmir resolution for him is a low-hanging fruit, ready to be plucked. His ultra-nationalist credentials will immunise him against charges of sell-out to Pakistan. And the opposition is too weak and divided to pillory him on this issue. Hence, he can with this security cover, pick up the strains of conversation where they were left in 2008, when all three stake-holders to the Kashmir issue — India, Pakistan and the people of the Valley — were on the same page. After all, in other areas too, the Modi government is faithfully furthering the programmes of Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, whether it is Goods and Services Tax (GST) or Unique Identification Card, Aadhaar.

However, if he wants to start afresh on Kashmir, even that should not be a problem. Neither Pakistan — which is only too eager to resume the dialogue — nor the Kashmiris are holding on to any pre-conditions for talks. The beginning of India-Pakistan dialogue will ease the internal situation in Kashmir, which has been deteriorating over the last two years. Every few months, a new dimension is added to the already volatile situation.

Till a year ago, the Indian security establishment was struggling to cope with the growing number of local boys joining militancy and training inside the state without crossing the Line of Control. After Burhan Wani’s death, a new trend of disrupting security operations started. Earlier, a crowd, often comprising women, used to collect at encounter sites raising slogans against the security forces to distract the soldiers. But in recent times, these crowds have become openly hostile against the Indian soldiers. They heckle and pelt stones at the soldiers in an effort to disrupt the operations. Hence, even as the soldiers face militants during an encounter, they have to watch out for their backs. The recent encounter in the Budgam district of central Kashmir, in which three civilian boys were killed along with one militant, point to a disturbing development — that young boys are willing to die for the cause they believe the militants are upholding. The fact that one of the civilian boys who died in the Budgam encounter came from a wealthy land-owning family belies the assumption that these are paid people, hence mercenaries. Far from wavering, clearly the sentiment is getting more entrenched.

So frankly, there is no alternative to talks. One of the fringe benefits of India-Pakistan talks will be softening of relations with China. Perhaps, one thing will lead to another, and India-China may begin a meaningful conversation on cooperation across a range of issues from BCIM economic corridor to OBOR! The possibilities are unlimited.

Domestically also, this would open newer avenues for Prime Minister Modi. For the first time ever, BJP is part of the state government in Jammu and Kashmir. Though at the moment it represents the Jammu region, beginning of the dialogue on Kashmir resolution will better its image and reach in the Valley too. Despite the current ambivalence (hostility even), a large number of Kashmiri people continue to hold Vajpayee in high regard. Many of them hope that Modi may eventually grow tall enough to fill his shoes. And even those who do not think like that are convinced that only the BJP would be able to deliver on the Kashmir resolution; just as in Pakistan, it is believed that only the army can successfully negotiate on Kashmir.

Hence, both nationally and internationally there can’t be a better moment to start this process, which will only further enhance Modi’s image.

The other issue that the Prime Minister must tackle head-on is Left-wing Extremism (LWE). Though more complicated than the Kashmir issue, it is possible that once the government sends out the message that it is serious about looking at ways for a peaceful solution to the Maoist insurgency, windows of possibilities will open.

This message can be sent in a three-pronged manner. One, the government should announce a general amnesty for all ‘prisoners of conscience’ — the human rights activists, lawyers, academics, social activists and those it labels as Maoists ideologues — against whom there are no direct charges of violence. Not only should these people be released and charges against them dropped, the government should engage with them to address the problems and challenges faced by the tribal, the people who form the centre of gravity for the Maoists. Let them represent the government of India to the tribal and perhaps, to some extent the Maoists too.

Concurrently, Prime Minister Modi should announce a moratorium on all mining and related activities in the tribal areas. This alone would take the pressure off the tribal people and reduce room for conflict. Given that amongst the states, worst affected by Maoist violence, which are also rich in mineral and forest resources, most have BJP or BJP-friendly governments, this should not be difficult for the Prime Minister to achieve. It is not a secret that these economic activities, in the garb of development, have been the biggest cause of tribal suffering.

Thereafter, the government should declare a ceasefire; all combing, cleansing, holding etc operations against the Maoists must be halted. The Maoists never seek out the security forces for confrontation. Their violence is primarily retaliatory one against the ongoing security operations. Once these operations cease, the level of violence will obviously come down. This doesn’t mean that the government cede ground to the rag-tag bunch of ‘criminals’; all it would imply is State’s genuine outreach to resolve issues peacefully.

Once an atmosphere of goodwill and trust is built the government should invite the Maoists for unconditional talks. By this time, the government would get some sense about the possible response to its call for talks; hence Prime Minister Modi should be able to spearhead these. However, if the government wants a step by step approach, perhaps talks can be initiated by the ministry of home affairs (MHA) with the Prime Minister stepping in at the appropriate time.

Pessimists may label the above over-simplification of complex issues, while Modi’s critics may point to the umbilical cord that ties him to the RSS, which, on the one hand, fantasises about incorporating Pakistan into India as part of Akhand Bharat, and on the other hand, aspires for a Hindu Rashtra in which all tribal identities are subsumed into the ‘parent’ religion. Yet, the historical truth is that the most complex of issues have the simplest of solutions. And as far as the RSS is concerned, if one has to grow, the umbilical cord has to be snapped.

Finally, now that everyone is convinced that the 2019 General Elections will be a cake-walk for Modi and his government, perhaps it is time he comes out of the election mode. Leave everyday politicking and electoral gimmickry to his minions, and starts thinking about his legacy. How does he want history to remember him? As a foot-soldier (swayamsevak) who could never throw off the yolk of his puppeteer or as a statesman who had the vision, magnanimity and grace to lead his people towards a peaceful and progressive future?