New Delhi: The decision to withdraw Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir was taken in early February — in the first term of the Modi government — and was to be announced before the Lok Sabha elections.
But the government was forced to shelve it just days later when a CRPF convoy was hit by a Jaish-e-Mohammed suicide bomber in Pulwama, killing 40 personnel and escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.
The controversial decision to scrap Article 370 was then put off for a “better time”, top sources in the government told ThePrint Monday, hours after Home Minister Amit Shah made the shock announcement.
According to a source in the Ministry of Home Affairs, a meeting was held in February with then finance minister Arun Jaitley, BJP chief Amit Shah, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and home minister Rajnath Singh and a decision was taken to announce it in the run-up to the elections.
The home ministry was asked to “start preparing” for the big move by taking a stock of the forces available and consulting legal experts.
“The plan was to make a big announcement before the election and the decision was taken to announce the scrapping of article 370 and 35A then,” the source said. “However, after the Pulwama attack, priorities changed. It became all about surgical strikes in Balakot, so the idea to announce this was dropped.”
ThePrint has also learnt that the home ministry was ready with the draft that was sent to the President Monday in February, and the government’s statement explaining its stand too was drafted in advance.
Waiting for right time
“It was just a matter of time. The preparation for it was done even before the Lok Sabha election manifesto came out,” the same source said. “The government was certain that it has to withdraw it, everything was ready, they were just waiting for the right time and what better than when Parliament is on,” he added.
A second source said that while the decision was in the pipeline, the government considered “minimum action” by first doing away with just 35A, but later decided to look at the “larger picture” and withdraw Article 370.
With the Modi-Shah-led BJP returning to power with a thumping mandate in the April-May Lok Sabha elections, scrapping Article 35A and Article 370 became a big priority.
The idea was to do it “as soon as possible and a loose time-frame of three-four months was set”, a third source said.
PM Modi had “considered and pushed it as part of a personal commitment”, the third source said, especially since this has been the BJP’s stated stand for decades. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, had consistently criticised the provision that gives special status and autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir.
The Modi government’s moves since coming to power in May were in consonance with this objective and the minutest of detail was worked out. Home Minister Shah’s visit to J&K in June end — barely a month after assuming charge — was part of this plan, as was National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s visit in the last week of July.
It was after Doval’s return from his two-day visit that thousands of paramilitary troops were moved into the state. Groups of journalists were also taken to the state by the central government.
Testing Rajya Sabha numbers
Politically, it was important for the Modi government to overcome its biggest hurdle — its lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha.
One source in the BJP said the decision to extend the Parliament session until 7 August, beyond the earlier date of 26 July, was a carefully thought-out move to leave space to accommodate this big announcement. Contentious bills, key to the BJP’s politics, such as Triple Talaq, RTI (Amendment) and UAPA (Amendment) bills were used as “test cases” to see where the government stands in the upper house.
“These were bills the government would have been unable to pass in its last term because of the Rajya Sabha hurdle. This time, however, we were able to pass all three despite major opposition and outrage,” the BJP source said.
“Essentially, they were test cases, or experiments, to see where we stand in the Rajya Sabha and how well we can keep afloat,” the BJP source added.
The ability to ensure the passage of these bills through a calibrated floor strategy and back-channel negotiations “bolstered the party’s top leadership’s confidence to be able to pull this off as well”, the source said.