Srinagar: As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president credited with scripting the party’s stunning electoral successes since 2014, Amit Shah has come to be known as a master strategist.
Appointed union home minister in the new Narendra Modi Cabinet, Shah’s strategic acumen is likely to face its toughest-ever test in a Kashmir grappling with its most treacherous chapter since the militancy of the 1980s and 1990s.
On the day Shah took charge of his ministry, flags of Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed were unfurled outside Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, the citadel of Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
Shah’s predecessor Rajnath Singh was well-regarded in the Valley, across party lines, as a keen listener and a moderate, despite the troubles that marked his tenure, beginning with the 2016 protests that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.
With strong-arm politics known to be the cornerstone of Shah’s approach, there is trepidation and also some anticipation about what he brings to the table for the Valley, which has suffered under a Pakistan-sponsored insurgency for decades.
Senior National Conference leader Nasir Aslam Wani, who served as minister in the Omar Abdullah-led state cabinet (2008-2014), said it was too early to comment on how Shah’s tenure will differ from that of Rajnath.
“Mr Rajnath was a good listener, but, despite our suggestions on how to improve the situation in Kashmir, not much changed on the ground,” he added.
“With Mr Shah, we believe there might be some chance of changing the situation in Kashmir, given that he is close to the Prime Minister. Directions, orders by the PM should be executed on the ground with ease,” Wani said.
Senior Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Naeem Akhtar, a former minister with the Mehbooba Muft-led PDP-BJP state administration (2016-2018), refused to comment.
However, party insiders said that while chief Mehbooba Mufti shared a great working relationship with Rajnath, her equation with Shah wasn’t hostile either.
A senior PDP leader claimed it was Shah whom Mehbooba first approached last November, five months after the party’s alliance collapsed, when the PDP faced several defections.
“Shah had assured [her] that the BJP’s interests will not be served by breaking regional parties,” the leader said. “With assembly elections approaching soon, let’s see how the situation will be.”
The past five years have been challenging for Kashmir, marked by a strenuous relationship with Pakistan, heightened recruitment in militancy with social media emerging as a mobiliser, and violent agitations and curfews in Kashmir.
Add to this the fact that the years also witnessed deep political instability as two parties with vastly different ideologies first joined hands and then broke up, leaving the state without an elected government for nearly a year.
The gap between Kashmir and Delhi also seemed to have widened under the Narendra Modi government, on account of the BJP’s avowed opposition of Article 370 and Article 35A, constitutional provisions locals hold sacred.
Despite the several measures for peace initiated on Rajnath’s watch — like appointing a special representative for Kashmir, announcing amnesty for stone-pelters, the Ramzan ceasefire — the minister also courted criticism for the intensified anti-militancy operations since 2016.
Speaking to ThePrint, Indian Army Lieutenant General H.S. Panag (Retd) said the Kashmir situation warranted a political solution, not a “hardened” one.
“Pakistan has been able to maintain the insurgency in Kashmir so far and data coming from the state proves the same,” he said.
“We managed to kill the highest number of terrorists in 2018, but the highest recruitment was also in 2018. When it comes to Pakistan, we have not been able to to compel it to back down from sponsoring terrorism and have only reacted after a major incident like that in Pulwama,” he added, calling for “technological and military advancements are required on that front”.
“So, if a radical change does not take place in these two areas, the situation in Kashmir won’t be changing in the near future,” said Panag, “A political approach has to be adopted and a dialogue has to start with people of Kashmir. A hardened approach will not yield much.”