Governance to peace: Challenges before the new Lt Governor of J&K

At his swearing in ceremony, Manoj Sinha, the new Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory (UT) of J&K listed his priorities as accelerating development, rebuilding people’s faith in democracy and the return of peace. He will have to rethink whether he might not have listed them in the reverse order. 

However, the political situation has been made difficult for him even before his swearing in. Chief Secretary B V R Subrahmanyam ruffled the state’s mainstream political parties by claiming that they lacked public support. He told visiting journalists, “Jammu and Kashmir was a broken state and there was no system in place due to years of mis-governance, corruption and unbelievable levels of fraud committed by leaders of mainstream political parties and separatist organisations. There, not a single soul cried over the detention of political and separatist leaders in August last year.” In turn the National Conference has accused him of breaching the neutrality expected of a civil servant and speaking “above his pay grade”

Sinha could have done without the Chief Secretary’s gaffe given that these are the only political elements in J&K that he will have to work with. The political mood in J&K should be evident from the fact that less than half a dozen politicians, three of them from the government sponsored J&K Apani Party, attended Sinha’s inauguration. They cannot form the core of the process of restarting any political process – their public legitimacy is even less than that apparently enjoyed by the mainstream politicians.

J&K is a political mine-field. Two of Manoj Sinha’s predecessors—Satya Pal Malik as Governor of the undivided state, and G C Murmu as Lt. Governor of the truncated UT—could not navigate it successfully. Malik left with his reputation in tatters after he prevented government formation in the state in November 2018. He said that he had not received the letter from Peoples Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti claiming a majority as the fax machine in his office was out of order. He then proceeded to dissolve the legislative assembly. Again, he deliberately lied to the political leaders in the state about the impending developments of August 5, 2019. This prompted former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s tweet that Satya Pal had not lived up to his name meaning one who abides by truth: “Only naam ka Satya, not kaam ka”.

His successor Murmu was not removed for “exceeding his brief” by announcing that elections will be held in the UT following delimitation. Murmu and Chief Secretary Subrahmanyam did not see eye to eye on many issues. The Lieutenant Governor’s complaints of bureaucratic non-cooperation apparently did not go down well with his patrons in Delhi, especially as he had failed to build a positive narrative in J&K. However, Lady Luck clearly prefers imparting a tight kick upstairs to her favourites in distress. Murmu was removed from J&K but immediately rewarded with appointment as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

Will Sinha find his task of restarting the political process any easier than his predecessors? He can begin by helping to restore the statehood of J&K. The Centre is amenable to it and it is a demand supported by the National Conference and the Congress. Earlier, the Centre had apparently wanted to hold elections to the UT legislative assembly first and then, based on an assembly resolution, restore statehood. However, immediate assembly elections would have required delimitation of constituencies for the new UT – an ongoing exercise that is being boycotted by the National Conference and the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

The mainstream parties in the Valley fear that delimitation may be manipulated to reduce the number of Muslim-dominated constituencies and inflate the number of constituencies in the Jammu region. These reservations suggest that assembly elections may not be possible without first restoring statehood. The delimitation exercise may then have to be postponed, perhaps to 2026 along with the rest of India. A recommendation to this effect to the Centre could be Sinha’s first peace gesture towards the people of J&K.

Yet another crucial decision would have to be about issuing domicile certificates. Sinha will have to determine whether it should be a one-time exercise to accommodate those already living in J&K but not domiciled under previous laws, a continuous process or should it be slowed down to allay fears of demographic change?

The uncertainties about restarting the political process would remain even with the statehood restored. After equivocal statements, the National Conference has been forced to reiterate the demand for the restoration of J&K’s special status. Former Chief Minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti remains under arrest. However, even when she is released she is unlikely to adopt a soft approach on the issue.

J&K needs not only change at the top but a well-considered political blueprint for establishing peace. This means reconciliation not only with the people, but also with Pakistan and now, given the Ladakh incursions, even with China. The process will have to value India’s asymmetric federalism and see variations in degrees of state autonomy as the strength of the Indian Union rather than its weakness. This is a very big ask from the present dispensation in Delhi with its homogenising, unitary and majoritarian politics. Changing governors and bureaucrats is not going to achieve this basic goal.

Yet a politician like Manoj Sinha may help ease the immediate pain of the people by facilitating the release of political prisoners, prevent arbitrary arrests, provide channels of communication with his administration, and make governance accountable. His most important task, however, will be to negotiate some room for independent and imaginative political thinking rather than let himself be the blunt instrument of Delhi. Otherwise, there will be little advantage in replacing an obedient bureaucrat with a politician as Lieutenant Governor.

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