At a press conference in Srinagar last week, the Prime Minister grandly announced an economic package of Rs 6165 for Kashmir. Thirty seconds later, Mr Vajpayee realised he had tripped up, and announced a Rs 6165 crore package for the state. It was a genuine slip of the tongue, but for the people of the beleaguered state, it's the kind of momentary lapse that perhaps only reflects the chasm that has always existed between word and action, between promise and performance when it comes to New Delhi's dealings with Srinagar.
Take for instance, Mr Vajpayee's grand announcement at the same press conference that by August 15, 2007, a railway line will pass through Kashmir for the first time. In normal times, this would have been greeted with at least two cheers. After all, the Indian railways remain one of the few enduring symbols of the state that enjoy universal respect. For many parts of the country, the railways remain a lifeline, bonding together millions of people. And yet, in Kashmir, the announcement that a railway line will pass through the state sixty years after independence was met with cynicism by the man on the street in Srinagar.
The reason is not far to seek. Several former prime ministers have come to the Valley in the past and made similar announcements, yet often the projects haven't taken off beyond the foundation stone stage. Moreover, as one local politician put it, "We haven't fought a political battle in Kashmir for a railway line, what we want is a political solution to our problem."
Indeed, Kashmir has moved well beyond the stage where its problems can be resolved by economic packages that hand out a few hundred crores (a large part of which will only provide local politicians with a chance to build another bungalow), or by providing a few hundred jobs (the majority of which will go to those with 'connections'). What a majority of Kashmiris appear to want is a political system which they see as fair, representative and one which addresses their desire for some kind of autonomy, if not azaadi.
To be fair to Mr Vajpayee, he has attempted in the past to try and break the impasse, and perhaps done more than any prime minister in recent years to actually move away from the beaten path. He took the Lahore bus initiative, he tried to talk to the masked men of the Hizbul Mujahideen, he declared a unilateral ceasefire, he released the leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, he discussed the state autonomy report and he appointed KC Pant as his official negotiator on Kashmir.
Unfortunately, Mr Vajpayee's Kashmir initiatives have been marked by boldness and imagination followed by long periods of inertia and stagnation. Take for instance, his decision to release the Hurriyat leaders from jail. The government initially agreed to allow these leaders to travel to Pakistan, then suddenly backtracked and decided to deny them the passports to travel. Mr Pant's attempt at starting a political dialogue with various groups in the Valley was followed by a long period when the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission simply hibernated in Yojana Bhavan. And after initially showing signs of considering the state government's autonomy report, when it came to the crunch the Union Cabinet rejected it outright.
The result is that with elections in the state round the corner, we are back to square one. The militants and their patrons in Islamabad continue to infiltrate the Valley and engage in senseless violence, the Hurriyat remains badly divided between the pro-Pakistani and pro-azaadi forces (a division that will in the long-run only widen after the recent killing of Abdul Ghani Lone), and the ordinary people of the state remain trapped in a cycle of militant violence and state repression.
In this moment of crisis, the Centre appears ready to rewind to the one trusted hand they have left in the Valley: the chief minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah. Dr Abdullah has often been typecast as a non-serious politician, someone who would rather be taking a film actress on a pillion ride than being involved in day-to-day administration. But as with so many politicians, the public persona is often misleading. For almost two decades now, Dr Abdullah has shown himself to be both a patriot, and a great political survivor, someone who knows just when to switch gears and move from wagging a finger at New Delhi to becoming his prime minister's voice in Srinagar.
But while Dr Abdullah's theatrics often make good television, and his frequent flyer miles between Delhi and Srinagar entitle him to free travel for life, they do not form the basis for a resolution to the Kashmir problem. Even today, Dr Abdullah is identified by the average Kashmiri as a symbol of the status quo, someone who willfully encouraged the rigging of the 1987 state elections, a poll that began Kashmir's rapid downslide into anarchy.
Somewhere, down the line the Indian government must be seen to be at least trying to look beyond the Abdullah family as an answer to the Kashmir problem. The only way to do that is to create the political space for other groups to be able to function. Take for instance, Abdul Ghani Lone, one of the few separatist leaders who at least publicly spoke out against Kashmir's gun culture. New Delhi was involved in back channel diplomacy with Lone for several months now, yet somehow it wasn't quite willing to openly back his attempts at entering the election process for fear of antagonising Dr Abdullah. The result is that Lone was caught in the cross-fire: a central government that wasn't willing to entirely legitimise him, a separatist movement that saw him as a traitor.
If more voices like Lone are to be heard, then the Centre needs to engage in a sustained dialogue with all groups in Kashmir, not episodic bouts of engagement. It won't be easy because this isn't simply a matter of New Delhi extending an invitation, and separatist and militant groups joining the dialogue table. There is a third player in this Kashmiri chess game: the government in Islamabad. Whatever New Delhi does to try and bring peace to the Valley, the Pakistanis will do whatever possible to jeopardise the peace efforts. Pakistan has gone too far down the path of waging a proxy war to back off now. How we deal with Islamabad poses a tough military, political and diplomatic challenge that needs to be discussed separately. But for now, let's try and smoothen our own road between New Delhi and Srinagar.
Published in NDTV