Indian opposition flounders against Modi Govt on Article 370

One of the reasons why Narendra Modi chose to opt for the risk of the  contentious decision to withdraw the special status of Jammu and Kashmir so early in his second tenure as Prime Minister was the assessment that the divided opposition parties, smarting under a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections, would not be in a position to raise a storm over a measure that fits into its nationalistic narrative. The assessment was largely on the mark.

For nearly three weeks since August 5 when the government announced repeal of Article 370, the opposition has struggled to come out with a united and robust stand to it. True, there had been sharp criticisms separately from some of the opposition parties like the Congress and CPI(M). Equally noteworthy were some attempts made by Congress General Secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, who hails from Jammu and Kashmir, and CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yehcury to visit (again separately) to visit Srinagar for a first-hand survey of the ground situation in the lockdown area but were not allowed to go beyond Srinagar airport. In fact, Azad had made two separate attempts only to be turned back leaving him angry and prompted him to accuse the Modi government of “mercilessly massacre” of the state by bifurcating into two territories. “We have lost identity, we have lost everything,” bemoaned Azad. The Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making forum adopted a resolution on August 6 deploring the “undemocratic” manner in which Article 370 was scrapped.    

However, it took a little more than two weeks for the opposition’s first united protest against the government on the Kashmir issue when nine parties held a meeting in New Delhi on August 22. Two days later, a joint delegation of 11 opposition parties led by former Congress President Rahul Gandhi tried to visit the Kashmir Valley but were predictably turned back from Srinagar airport. Political observers have not failed to note that the initiative for the August 22 joint rally came from a regional party—Dravida Munnetra Kazagham­—and not from the Congress with a pan-India presence. A greater share of the blame for the opposition’s feeble response to the government’s move on Kashmir is largely due to divisions within the Congress on the issue and the party’s leadership crisis prevailing then. This was acknowledged by none other than the party’s senior leader in Assam Bhubaneshwar Kalita who quit the Congress.

The Congress was wracked by in-house division on the abrogation of Article 370 with several young and some veteran leaders openly supporting the government’s action. Just look at the names that broke ranks with the CWC stand: Jyotiraditya Scindia, Deepender Hooda, Jitin Prasada, R P N Singh, Milind Deora and a few others of the party’s young brigade who were seen to be close to Rahul Gandhi and flag-bearers of the Congress’ political fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Prominent among the party veterans who backed the government on Article 370 are Karan Singh, the son of Jammu and Kashmir’s former ruler Hari Singh, Janardan Dwivedi and B S Hooda. Their stand stood in sharp contrast to that of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul, Priyanka and the party’s other prominent figures who flayed the government’s action on ideological and constitutional grounds.

What was interesting is the U-turn made by Karan Singh, a former Sadar-i-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir in 1960s, from his earlier known stand of opposing any tinkering with Article 370. It would be tempting to wonder, as some analysts have done, if these Congress leaders were thinking of leaving the party and looking for greener pastures. But such a conclusion would obfuscate the truth: the realization in the party about the need for a fresh approach to the Kashmir issue.

Be that as it may. The joint rally of August 22 and the joint opposition delegation’s attempted visit to the Kashmir Valley on August 24 appeared to indicate that the parties were getting their acts together on the Kashmir issue after initial inertia and disjointed efforts. However, a major discordant note came on August 26 when Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati criticized the opposition leaders’ visit to Srinagar airport claiming this gave the BJP to turn into a political issue. That was not surprising from Mayawati whose party had backed the government in parliament on Article 370 withdrawal. Mayawati, herself a Dalit leader, invoked Dalit icon B R Ambedkar to defend her party disengaging her party from the rest of the opposition on the Kashmir issue. She pointed out that Ambedkar, one of the framers of the Indian Constitution, never favoured Article 370 for the sake of India’s national unity and uniformity. 

It is interesting to note that a part of the opposition criticism, including that Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, of the government’s action on Kashmir relates more to the procedure in which it was taken than on its intrinsic merit. This reflects a fear among them that any attempt to delve into the merits or demerits of Article 370 would only serve to bolster the BJP’s nationalism plank that had paid off handsomely in the 2019 national elections.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a journalist based in India