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Asleep on the job, but Patil retains his berth

Asleep on the job, but Patil retains his berth
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First Published: Wed, Aug 20 2008. 10 28 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Aug 20 2008. 10 28 PM IST
When the people of Pakistan decided it was time to cut the slack they had been giving Pervez Musharraf for nine long years, out he went. Here in India, not even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it seems, can take action against home minister Shivraj Patil for letting Kashmir self-destruct on his watch.
To be sure, the buck stops with the Prime Minister. But the one thing that stands out from this crisis of the last few weeks in Jammu and Kashmir is the home minister’s supreme inability to communicate the Centre’s intended message of assertion: it will not tolerate blackmail in that state.
Even if the Bharatiya Janata Party wilfully got its fingers dirty by stoking the fire in Jammu, all for a few votes in the impending state elections, the point is that Patil failed to anticipate what would happen; and once it began to happen, hardly responded with any political initiatives to fix the situation. Still, as Kashmir continues to wither and wilt, singe and burn, the big question is why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, so decisive and willing to risk his honour over the nuclear deal with the US, refuses to take action against his own home minister. The way we understand it, when Sonia Gandhi refused the job in 2004 and Manmohan Singh became prime minister, the Congress decided to keep the power portfolios. While it was easy enough to distribute external affairs to K. Natwar Singh, defence to Pranab Mukherjee, commerce to Kamal Nath and finance to P. Chidamabaram, what did one do with Patil? It didn’t help that he had lost the election from Latur, in Maharashtra.
But Patil had already charmed Gandhi, when during her first term as member of Parliament in 1999, the former Lok Sabha speaker virtually guided her through parliamentary potholes and niceties. She never forgot, it is said. Which is why Patil has remained home minister—despite terrorist blasts in Varanasi, Mumbai, Malegaon, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur and Ahmedabad, and the violence and civilian unrest in Kashmir.
It’s the perfect irony, especially in a country given to the perpetuation of dynastic politics. Nehru’s granddaughter-in-law is witness to the worst crisis in Kashmir in the last 20 years, and she’s unable to help. Imagine how Kashmir is going to respond if you tell its people that Patil’s lack of imagination is coming in the way of a solution.
Perhaps that’s exactly why the Kashmir valley, especially, felt a connection with Musharraf, whose four-point plan for resolving the Kashmir dispute had as its central point the “joint management” of Kashmir by India and Pakistan. But India, unwilling to allow Pakistan any measure of control over the valley, rubbished the idea. Instead, New Delhi argued that the Line of Control should be transformed into the softest border, so that Kashmiris on both sides could meet each other without recourse to bureaucratic barriers such as visas and passports (it’s another matter that the travel permit rules are equally stringent).
Faced with the Indian state’s intransigence, Musharraf played along. To his own audience he noted that Hurriyat leaders such as Mirwaiz Umer Farooq often drove across the Line of Control to see him, indicating that he could not be cut out of the game. Delhi shut one eye when the Hurriyat leaders travelled, arguing nervously that they were allowing the Kashmiris to experiment with their new-found freedom.
What New Delhi liked best was Musharraf’s decision to completely ignore the Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, in favour of moderates such as Yasin Malik, Shabbir Shah and the Mirwaiz. No wonder when Musharraf finally quit on Monday afternoon and Geelani gloated about his removal, the others made their unhappiness openly known.
In the new post-Musharraf politics of South Asia, the Kashmir back-channel between India and Pakistan will have to wait not only for Pakistan to settle its politics between Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, but for India to have its own elections.
Certainly, a minority government like the one Manmohan Singh currently leads cannot cut a deal on Kashmir with anyone in Pakistan. And since Patil doesn’t seem to have any new ideas, the Prime Minister has fallen back on his trusted national security adviser M.K. Narayanan to go and talk to both sides in Jammu and Srinagar this week.
Considering Narayanan has just returned from lobbying in Paris and Moscow for a special waiver for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Germany on Thursday, sending him to Kashmir not only underlines Patil’s failure to deliver, but also the lack of a political strategy on how to deal with this crisis. As for thinking the unthinkable in Kashmir—letting the Kashmir valley secede from the Indian Union and either join up with Pakistan or become independent—the problem with that suggestion is that most of India has been thinking it anyway.
Let’s be clear about one thing. The blame for treating Kashmir as being somehow separate must lie with us, not with the Kashmiris. We turned against the Kashmiris long before they turned against India.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics. Comments are welcome at betweenthelines@livemint.com
To read all of Jyoti Malhotra’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/betweenthelines
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First Published: Wed, Aug 20 2008. 10 28 PM IST