M D Nalapat
As India entered the 62nd year of the founding of the Republic, television screens were filled not by the ritualistic parade on Rajpath (formerly Kingsway), but by the efforts of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to hoist the Indian tricolour atop Lal Chowk in Srinagar on Republic Day (January 26). Although those favouring either independence for Kashmir or integration with Pakistan swore to stop the BJP from hoisting the national flag, what stopped the party was the Jammu & Kashmir state government assisted by the Centre. The Prime Minister himself publicly frowned on the BJP’s “Tiranga Yatra” (Tricolour March), warning that such a move would once again plunge the Kashmir valley into the chaos that had been its lot for months as the result of determined teams of young stone-palters.
Finally, the two top BJP leaders who headed the Yatra had to return in defeat, contenting themselves with raising the flag in Kathua, a town in Jammu where the BJP has a strong presence. They were barred from leaving the Jammu airport, and when they protested, were arrested and taken away from the summer capital of Kashmir. Both Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House (Lok Sabha) Arun Jaitley and Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) saw discretion as the best part of valour, and accepted the order to abort the Yatra with nothing more than a grumble for the cameras. The shamefaced return of the two BJP stalwarts was indicative of the fact that the BJP has become an “opponent” very willing to bark, but terrified to bite.Indeed, Jaitley in particular has annoyed his party’s cadres by his refusal to target Sonia Gandhi, the boss of the ruling coalition, for reasons unknown. The internet has been buzzing with angry mails about his alleged demand that the name of Sonia Gandhi should not be mentioned in any BJP communication about the criminal hoards of foreign money held by ruling politicians in Swiss and other banks. Some say that it is the friendship of himself and his wife with Navin and Rupika Chawla that is the reason for Jaitley’s extraordinary forbearance towards a politician who has made no secret of her determination to eliminate the BJP from the country’s politics. Former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla and his charming and accomplished spouse Rupika are close to both Sonia Gandhi as well as the Jaitleys, and their diplomatic skills are famed in Delhi.
Even Jaitley’s equal in the party hierarchy and the other prospective future PM of India Sushma Swaraj has thawed considerably towards Sonia Gandhi. The lady who in 2004 threatened to shave off the hair on her head if Sonia Gandhi became PM now meets with the “CP” (Congress President) regularly, and has only kind words to say about her former bete noire. Although Congress ranks are delighted at the bonhomie between Sonia Gandhi and the top BJP leadership (even the family of L K Advani, the party patriarch, is friendly with the family of Sonia Gandhi), ordinary BJP workers are aghast. However, in view of the fact that inner-party democracy is absent in India, the views of the rank and file are of zero importance to party leaders.
Unlike in the US or the UK, where the views of the local constituency party matters, in India candidates for election and for top posts are chosen by the party leadership, which in most cases means a single family. The fiasco that ended the Tiranga Yatra on January 26 solidified the view within the Indian public that the BJP leadership was unwilling to confront the Congress leadership, and indeed was nervous of doing so. While the uncharitable may say that such reticence is because of skeletons in their financial and personal cupboards that are known to the intelligence agencies (and therefore to Sonia, who has access to every layer of the Manmohan Singh government), it is more likely that it is the politeness and soft-spoken behaviour of Jaitley and Swaraj that are responsible for their refusal to target Sonia Gandhi. Instead, they target Manmohan Singh, who - like his earlier benefactor Narasimha Rao ( PM of India during 1992-96) - never hits back, no matter how personal the attack. Everyday the BJP pretends that Manmohan Singh runs the Congress Party and the government, holding him personally responsible for decisions that are in fact - and obviously - taken by the all-powerful Sonia Gandhi.
Both Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, who were forced by J &K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to hoist the national flag at far-off Kathua rather than Srinagar, can be expected to rain fire on Manmohan Singh. The question is: Has their effort at hoisting the national flag given the BJP electoral mileage, or is the population of India unconcerned by such histrionics? Judging by the tepid public reaction to the Tiranga Yatra, the latter would appear to be the case. The people of India know that it is the armed might of the country and not any political gesture which ensures that the Kashmir valley (where there exists a majority of Wahabbis, almost all of whom are allergic to Kashmir remaining within Hindu-majority India) continues to be part of India. Had the state government or the Centre wanted, it would have been an easy matter to ensure the success of the BJP’s Yatra. However, giving a boost to the BJP is very far from being the agenda of the Congress Party!.
The change within the Sunni population of the Kashmir valley from a Sufi outlook to that of the Wahabbis has had an enormous impact on the psyche of the people there. They believe that they ought to be part of a country where only those of their faith are given rights, or at the least enjoy the privileged status that Wahabbis do in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They are opposed to women wearing anything other than the full burkha in public, and look askance at cinema theatres, most forms of music, and alcohol. Gujarat and Kashmir (which represent two extremes in India, the first being a state where “Hindu” ethos is clearly enjoying primacy) are the two states in India where the fun and frolic that are present in most other parts of India are absent. After all, this is a country that loves its alcohol, and is not ashamed to admit it. Once, years ago, a delegation of Iranian scholars landed in this columnist’s home base, Trivandrum (in Kerala State).They were amazed to see a nude statue near the airport, and to be served beef for dinner.They had thought that as Hindus do not at beef, it must have been banned in the country. The fact is that beef, pork, chicken and fish are freely available in most parts of India, except Gujarat and Kashmir.
The danger in the way that the BJP has been humiliated in Kashmir is that the prevention of the effort at hoisting the national flag in Srinagar by the Omar Abdullah government (backed by both the PM as well as Home Minister Chidambaram) may give false hopes to the many within the Kashmir valley who are eager to separate from India. Over past decades, this group has indulged in numerous actions, each designed to tire the Indian state or ensure that foreign countries step in and make Kashmir the next Kosovo. Sadly for them, the Indian state is still robust, and unlikely to go under. And as for foreign countries, the more powerful they are, the more they want to sell to India. The people of the Kashmir valley do not figure in such a cost-benefit analysis. The weeks ahead will show whether the victory of Omar Abdullah over the BJP has been a pyrrhic one, in that it has sparked off a fresh agitation by newly-energized separatists, or whether the present calm in the Kashmir valley will continue. In the meantime, both Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley look a bit ridiculous, making a lot of ado but achieving next to nothing.