After some two months of talks, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have agreed on a programme of governance for Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and gifted the border state with an unlikely right-left coalition headed by the PDP’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
Was this move brave, or just opportunistic? In itself this coalition government looks like a pretty remarkable achievement—a kind of national entente cordiale. It is significant for the two political parties involved, for J&K, India and for South Asia.
The alliance hasn’t come out of the shadow of potential failure still. Already, as many feared, its deep ideological cracks have begun to show—there has been all-round condemnation of Sayeed’s move to free a separatist Kashmiri leader from detention and his comments praising Pakistan for the incident-free success of assembly elections in J&K.
Still, some more tiny steps can turn this political venture into a giant leap, opening up opportunities to do much more for both peace and development in the state.
When the talks started, it seemed to many sceptics like a stab in the dark by two of the unlikeliest of political partners—a marriage distinctly not made in heaven. The right-wing BJP is known for its muscular hard line on J&K. The PDP, on the other hand, is a liberal political outfit—wet as wet.
But the common minimum programme (CMP) worked out by the two parties is a document that is worthy of study by political scientists and conflict resolution experts. These are early days yet, and it is entirely possible the two parties will squabble and fall out miserably; but, for the moment, it looks like they have come up with a unique experiment in governance.
The 16-page-CMP rests on three pillars of compromise and agreement.
One, the BJP has dropped (for the moment, perhaps) its demand to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution that grants J&K a special status within the Indian Union.
Two, the PDP has softened its opposition to the presence of Indian troops in the so-called “disturbed areas" of the state.
Three, both have endorsed a “development first" agenda that will tie in J&K with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s smart cities programme, develop infrastructure, try and achieve 100% female literacy and primary healthcare and build first-rate teaching hospitals and engineering institutes.
“While recognizing the different positions and appreciating the perceptions the BJP and the PDP have on the constitutional status of J&K, considering the political and legislative realities, the present position will be maintained on all the constitutional provisions pertaining to J&K, including the special status in the Constitution of India," the document says.
My summation of the intent behind the deal would be: peace will follow development.
This is where the political class in India—and not just the government—may have missed out on an opportunity: to devise a more ambitious project, a comprehensive political, security and development programme.
Those talks toward writing a CMP for the two party-coalition could have involved other political parties—both national and regional—which, in turn, could have given the rest of India a greater tangible stake in the governance of J&K.
This state is unique in India and, arguably, other political outfits, not least the Congress and the regional National Conference, too, have a stake in a programme of governance for J&K. These two parties lost the state assembly election, but can still be brought in to give the CMP a national character. Take six months, if needed.
A wider endorsement is needed because of the international dimension to the J&K problem. Indeed, some academics are of the view that the assembly election in J&K prepares the ground for a Northern Ireland-type resolution of conflict. I am not too sure. The reason for that is Pakistan—that ever-present ghost in the room.
After decades—some would argue centuries—of violence between Catholics and Protestants, Northern Ireland since 2007 has been ruled by a grand alliance of political parties, including one-time foes whose history of violence and deep-seated, foul-mouthed enmity would make the ideological differences between the BJP and the PDP seem like the flirty fights of a married couple.
The peace process in Northern Ireland was a long-drawn affair, and involved all the major political parties in Belfast, Dublin and London through a degree of continuity in policy. Symbolically, it was begun by the Conservatives under John Major and concluded by Labour under Tony Blair.
Some years ago, I wrote an article titled If Pakistan Were Like Ireland, which listed the factors that to my mind had facilitated the creation of this grand Irish alliance. The article highlighted the constructive role played by Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and, by extension, to the UK.
There was a time, decades ago, when armed Catholic militants from Protestant-majority Northern Ireland could slip across the border to the Republic of Ireland and receive arms and support there. No longer.
When I first visited Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, on a reporting assignment 25 years ago, the heavy presence of British armed forces on the streets was a stark reminder of the peace-keeping challenges.
I have returned many times since. On my last visit, only a couple of years ago, I met reformed former jailed terrorists from both sides—Catholic and Protestant—who talked of their faith in peace. Convicted murderers are working with young people. Today, Belfast is no longer the notorious setting of the Troubles—along with Dublin, it has become an investment destination for the knowledge industry.
Development has followed peace, in other words.
But Northern Ireland is lucky its peace is not likely to be shattered by the guns of terrorists sponsored from across the border. So, I will say this once again—if only Pakistan were like Ireland.