Modi needs to plan carefully for the future of Kashmir

Modi needs to plan carefully for the future of Kashmir

An end to the special status afforded to Jammu and Kashmir has been a key demand of right-wing nationalists in India almost since the time of independence, and has featured in every election manifesto of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its predecessors since 1948. Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fulfilled the promise.

The decision, taken in absolute secrecy with barely three or four others besides Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah in the know, caught everyone — his supporters and, more crucially, the entire opposition — by surprise.

For the past week, the entire valley has been in lockdown. Phone connections and the internet have been cut, political leaders arrested, schools and colleges closed and a curfew imposed across the state, leaving locals, and indeed the nation, in the dark about what is coming next. Bizarrely, visitors can still move around freely simply by showing their air tickets, while residents are forced to remain indoors.

Last week Modi addressed the nation about the decision and the reasons behind it. He said the special status had hurt Kashmir instead of helping it, as a clutch of vested interests have for the past seven decades controlled the entire valley, and billions of dollars of funds the federal government had provided for the development of the state had been misused or pocketed.

He promised an all-round development plan for the region, with a focus on education and employment, as well as private investments. Modi also pledged to hold early elections and bring on aboard “young” representatives and leaders of the state to take on the task of development. He also criticized, unusually, some of his own supporters who have talked of now being able to buy land in Kashmir or marry “fair” Kashmiri maidens, or who described the status change as a victory over Kashmiris and Muslims.

Modi is indeed right to talk about the economy, employment and education but the government needs to walk the walk, as well as talking the talk. Coming up with big and catchy ideas is nothing new to Modi, but his government has failed to implement them because of sloppy planning

Ranvir S. Nayar

If the speech was meant to enlighten people, it failed to measure up. Modi spoke of building trust in Kashmir and with Kashmiris, but that is hardly likely if he continues to use jackboots to keep the situation under control.

Despite the situation in the valley, Modi will be pleased with the response from other parts of the country, where many people, including non-BJP supporters, have been vocal about their support for the move.

Even the opposition Congress party was split on how to respond, with several leaders breaking ranks with the official party line of criticizing the decision. Perhaps the most unexpected support came from senior Congress leader Karan Singh, the son of the king who signed the accession agreement with India in 1948.

Heartened though Modi and his party might be, the next few weeks will be crucial for India and Kashmir. The government needs to tread carefully and sensibly if it is to win the trust of the locals in Kashmir, in particular the youth. There is widespread disenchantment among young people with India, especially since Modi took charge five years ago. Even though his party was in a coalition government with a local party, Modi has used extremely harsh, strong-arm tactics to curb not only insurgency and terrorism, but also any kind of protests in a state that has, for the past 18 months or so, been ruled directly from New Delhi.

The average Kashmiri has been very angry and suspicious of Modi, and indeed of India, since 2014. The incessant protests over the past four years and the terror attack this year on a military convoy, in which more than 40 soldiers were killed, have crippled tourism, the primary industry of Kashmir, leading to massive unemployment and near-total disruption of schools and colleges.

Modi is indeed right to talk about the economy, employment and education but the government needs to walk the walk, as well as talking the talk. Coming up with big and catchy ideas is nothing new to Modi, but his government has failed to implement them because of sloppy planning.

Take two big moves he made during his first term: The abolition of high-value currency notes (demonetization) and the introduction of a uniform national tax code, the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Demonetization was intended to eliminate undeclared money from the economy, curb terror financing and encourage Indians to move to digital payments, reducing the amount of cash in circulation. However, the withdrawal of the high-value notes paralyzed the economy, because the government had not adequately prepared to replace the cash. It was more than six months before people were able to easily access their own money, after being forced to queue for days to get hold of the new notes to pay for their day-to-day needs. The central bank had not been given enough time to print adequate quantities of new notes to refill ATMs and supply to banks when the old notes were withdrawn. In addition, the new notes were smaller, making it necessary to recalibrate every ATM in the country.

The GST, meanwhile, was supposed to boost tax-collection rates and curb the informal economy. Instead, tax revenues have fallen because of messy implementation.

The economy has yet to recover from these blunders, with growth dipping to the lowest level in five years and unemployment rising to a 45-year high.

Modi needs to ensure that his team has prepared a foolproof plan for the future of Kashmir to ensure locals start to see the promised benefits sooner rather than later. Otherwise he will quickly discover that even rebooting the economy is easier than winning over an alienated population.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.
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