Elections to development, L-G Manoj Sinha shares ambitious plans for J&K

I want to ensure people get a say in what they want. I am not one to make grand announcements, J&K L-G Manoj Sinha says | Illustration: Binay Sinha
There’s little at Jammu and Kashmir House on Delhi’s tony Prithviraj Road that points to Kashmir. No carved walnut wood furniture, no shikaras (not even dinky tabletop replicas), no framed pictures of Sheikh Abdullah, glaring down fiercely at guests…. Just a few vaguely Kashmiri-looking carpets, rather the worse for wear, some pictures of generic “scenery” and a few plastic vases with some rust-brown fronds (also plastic) making a brave attempt to pass off as Chinar leaves in the autumn. The décor is utilitarian, almost boring. There is security, but it is unobtrusive.

Manoj Sinha, the new Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir – the second in the space of a year since the state became a union territory – does not believe in excessive security. At J&K House, there’s no gunman guarding his door, no frisking of visitors and no passing through metal detectors. But this is Delhi. In Srinagar, his security would be non-negotiable.  Sinha belongs to Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the playground of armed mafiosi – and he had no gunmen there, either.

Did he know he was going to be sent on such an important assignment? No, he says, as he settles down for a chat. He doesn't know the back story: When J P Nadda became Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, Sinha’s name was considered for an organisational position. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi scratched the name out and told party leaders that he wanted to talk to Sinha first, suggesting he could be deployed in a different role.

Sinha first came to know Modi in 1992 when Murli Manohar Joshi, then BJP president, organised the Ekta Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and hoisted the Tricolour at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk (Modi was chief organiser of the yatra).

In the 2014 Modi government, he served first as minister of state for Railways and then got independent charge of communications and IT. His work came in for praise from late BJP leader Arun Jaitley. Briefly, Sinha’s name was mentioned for the chief ministership of UP in 2017 – a rumour fuelled by the ambitions of his supporters rather than any claims by Sinha.

His predecessor G C Murmu was appropriate for the transition in J&K after Article 370 was abolished. But now you need someone who isn't a newbie in politics -- and Sinha certainly isn't. He has come up through the rough and tumble of student politics in Banaras Hindu University (BHU), where he studied engineering at IIT BHU. His role model then was Communist Party of India’s Sarju Pandey, one of eastern UP’s tallest leaders known to be both fearless and humane – the two qualities Sinha admired him most for.

In his new job, he says, he is ready to listen to everyone, speak with everybody -- within reason. “For far too long, people in J&K have felt the government doesn’t exist for them. My first priority is to make them feel that not only does it exist, it is there to work for them”. Sinha believes what worked in violence-ridden, underdeveloped Ghazipur must surely work in J&K as well. With him as MP and minister, Ghazipur got a new railway station, a four-laned highway with connectivity to both Lucknow and Varanasi and an airport. He may have lost the 2019 election but won many in the constituency over. He is testing this in J&K.

All the bureaucrats in the state, he says, are back at work, pandemic notwithstanding. People are coming to government offices for domicile certificates, caste certificates and other paperwork. “I want to ensure people get a say in what they want. I am not one to make grand announcements,” he says.

So, the district planning boards are going to be recast (they were dissolved in 2019) and panchayat elections will be held as soon as feasible. “I am arranging to send groups of panchayat heads to other parts of India to gather best practices in local government,” he says.

That is all very well, but when most of the top state politicians are still not free (you can quibble over whether they are under arrest or house arrest or detention – they’re not free, period) how can you hold fair elections? “But that’s a temporary situation” he says, hinting at their release soon. “There might be initial clamour for boycott of panchayat elections, but a lot of it could be rhetoric. I expect extensive participation; people know this will have an impact on development.”

Sinha is known for being frank, so it doesn’t sound like empty talk when he lists corruption as a concern and a priority. “I don’t want to name anyone. It is indeed a challenge to free the state from groups of vested interests, which have enjoyed protection from powerful patrons,” he says, indicating he has a plan to check the mining mafia. He says he will pursue bank frauds, particularly related to J&K Bank, to their logical end.

He hasn’t been in J&K long, but knows enough about the history of the region’s neglect, having studied it in some detail before he was asked to go there. What had he seen that just took his breath away? He thinks and answers softly: “Projects were started 20-25 years ago and are still not complete.” This is as close as you can get him to say that the State (country) has let the people of J&K down.

We are so engrossed in talking that the food goes tepid. It is a wonderful vegetarian spread: Haq greens tempered in mustard oil, small brinjals in a tangy curry, the ubiquitous dum aalu, and a concession, clearly, to Sinha’s own weakness: UP-style arhar dal. He jokes that he was used to lauki, torai, bhanta, the trio of vegetables from the gourd family and purple eggplant, and was thrown at the amount of paneer used in J&K. The dal bridges the culinary divide.

What about Kashmiri Pandits? Sinha is impassive. He says he wants to involve them and has assured them security if they want to come back to the Valley: “All over the region, there are beautiful temples, thousands of years old, lying in ruins. If my ancestors had built those structures, I would have grabbed at the chance to rebuild them. I have made an offer to some wealthy KPs: ‘Come back and reclaim your heritage.’ I’m sure they will respond positively.”

Sinha is bewildered at the hugely wasteful, completely needless and amazingly feudal move of the ‘Durbar’ (secretariat and government offices) to Srinagar in summer and to Jammu in the winter. All the documents are laden in trucks, and then convoys trundle down to Jammu and months later, back up to Srinagar. “In this day of digitisation, do you really need to do this?”

He flags with enthusiasm all the things he wants to do: Offer sport as a way to engage young people, build bigger, better hospitals, craft a new industrial policy, revive local craft... Cricketer Suresh Raina has been roped in to start cricket academies across the state. Locals wanted an examination centre for entrance to universities like Aligarh Muslim University, and while this year, time was too short to set one up, it will be in place next year, for sure, he says. Land records, he adds, are being digitised and land protection laws are going to be drafted.

But will he last long enough in the state to achieve a fraction of this? Who knows? Murmu didn’t.

And then the real problem is doing business with the rest of India, especially when the National Investigation Agency (NIA) pounces on your partner even if your business is perfectly legitimate and is backed with all the paperwork? “The NIA is a very professional entity. It knows whose business is legitimate and whose is just a cover,” he says quietly.

We end with dessert: phirni, fragrant with saffron and cardamom. But UP rears its sweet head again: there’s creamy rabri in little earthenware bowls. Suddenly, there’s an interruption: A small boy bounds in and greets Sinha with a pronounced American twang and a hug. His grandson is down from Seattle for a holiday.

Sinha’s face softens, and he beams. The room is suffused with love. He shoos the boy off to dinner. For that one moment, Sinha is a grandfather, nothing more. The purity of that emotional connection visible on his face is what the people of Jammu and Kashmir have been missing.

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