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In the name of interlocution

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Kashmir interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma has little political room for manoeuvre, but his appointment is a masterstroke in political management.

Dineshwar Sharma, the Centre’s newly-appointed Jammu & Kashmir interlocutor, is already hamstrung, with barely a square inch of political space left for him to manoeuvre despite the cabinet secretary status given to him. Why so? And does that render the entire high-profile exercise irrelevant?

The answer to the second question is no, but we will come to that later. First, it’s important to understand Sharma’s challenge, which got way more difficult by the time he touched down in Srinagar for his first visit.

Interlocution is not new to Kashmir. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to have a political approach, so he appointed K.C. Pant, and by the time the term of his government ended, we had former bureaucrat N.N. Vohra handling the job.

While they did have healthy interactions with different groups, the fact is neither of them gave any substantive report or a tangible set of recommendations to follow up. Vohra went on to become Jammu and Kashmir Governor, and remains in that position.

The Manmohan Singh government took two key initiatives: one was to organise a series of roundtables, and the other was to appoint a group of interlocutors headed by former editor Dileep Padgaonkar. In contrast, these two initiatives produced documents for future reference.

But what became clearer through the passing of each such interlocution effort was that the nub of contention was the subject of Centre-state relations. None of these interlocutors could make any substantive progress on this front. In fact, they probably decided to not let that issue impede other recommendations intended to ‘heal’ by way of government doles and skilling programmes to improve employment prospects.

While Pant and Vohra never really wrote their minds out on this, Justice Saghir Ahmed, who headed the working group on Centre-state relations under the roundtable process, did give in a report. But as is often the case with this sensitive subject, Justice Ahmed, who was former chief justice of the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, avoided taking a clear stand on the matter.

He largely compiled representations from various political parties and other entities, which ranged from different shades of autonomy to self-rule. Those who studied the report later felt that his position never came out clearly, though he may have been closer to National Conference’s autonomy model. However, no one was willing to take chances on a guess.

This was also true of the interlocutors’ group under Padgaonkar. While they enumerated issues of concern and even suggested possible changes to relevant laws governing the relationship with J&K, their final call was to set up a constitutional committee to look into this issue.

It’s clear from this backdrop that Sharma has a fine line to tread on this issue. Former Home minister and senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram was quick to latch on when he pitched for greater autonomy soon after Sharma’s appointment. National Conference held a delegates’ conference after 15 years, and adopted a resolution demanding more autonomy, also to corner the PDP, which has historically taken more extreme positions on this.

Barely had this narrative taken off that the BJP lost no time in countering it. No less than the Prime Minister himself lashed out at the Congress for using language spoken usually in Pakistan.

Iska unko har pal jawaab dena hoga (This they will have to answer every moment from now),” he said at a rally in Bengaluru, virtually removing the autonomy option from the table even before Sharma could lay out his menu.

Which is why Sharma’s political play is greatly diminished from the standpoint of serious interlocution, as known and understood over the past two decades. He can, at best, come up with a set of ‘healing touch’ measures and actively pursue a de-radicalisation programme for the youth, although the response to any of what he may propose from now on would be at best, lukewarm.

This brings us to the second question of the interlocutor’s relevance if he is already so weakened. The short answer is Sharma remains politically relevant in the BJP’s big picture.

To fathom this, one must understand that for previous governments, optics was different from substance, almost like two separate tracks – one for public consumption, the other away from the public eye, done quietly for the long haul. But for the NDA government, optics is the substance. This is a political shift that symbolises the ascension of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a marked change in method that has almost abolished official sanctity to any track-2 approach.

So, it’s quite clear in this case that the announcement of an interlocutor was a sharp political move intended at both addressing political concerns and making political gains. How?

In the short run, it gives Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti something to talk about, something she can claim she could extract from this alliance of opposites. Like she got optics – Lahore stopover, the chat at Ufa – in return for her demands for dialogue with Pakistan, Sharma’s appointment is much of the same given that he has no mandate now to move on autonomy, not even as a conversation-starter.

But in the longer run, this interlocution model will lay the ground for more anticipated clash points between the BJP and the PDP, especially on Kashmir’s special status which, anyhow, is strained by the Centre’s position on Article 35A. Both political parties know that their ability to accommodate each other is going to be vastly reduced as they approach parliamentary elections in 2019 and state polls in 2020.

Eventually, there’s every possibility for the interlocutor to emerge as the caretaker manager of issues, while the two alliance partners find ways to politically disengage in order to nurture their diametrically different political constituencies. The effort, perhaps, is to keep it as mutually acceptable as possible, just the way the alliance has continued with the acknowledgement that neither may make electoral gains if they split.

Sharma, much like Vohra, may well be in for a long run, but only if he works best for all stakeholders, especially the BJP. Until then, he is on close watch.

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