Ever since the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019, there has been a huge trust deficit between political players of the region and the Centre. The latest invitation to the representatives of various parties for a meeting in New Delhi was the first instance of a political initiative to break the ice. Despite the limitations inherent in the exercise, it must be welcomed and viewed as part of confidence-building measures. While the main agenda of the meeting is to discuss delimitation exercise — the process of redrawing electoral constituencies which could pave the way for elections, there are expectations that the Centre might indicate its willingness to restore statehood. This is one of the key demands of the political parties, including the Congress. There are still differences among the constituencies of the ‘Gupkar Alliance’, a conglomeration of the J&K regional parties, over the terms of engagement with the NDA government. However, it is in the interests of the trouble-torn region that the parties should positively respond to the Centre’s invitation and participate in the dialogue. Boycotting a meeting proposed by the Prime Minister would be counter-productive for them because maximalist positions will not help their cause. The opportunity to engage with the country’s top leadership should not be missed. There is no doubt that much of the onus for any normalisation of the democratic processes lies with the Centre. Despite the successful conduct of the District Development Council elections, the trust deficit persists.
The prolonged incarceration of the mainstream political leaders, after ending the special status, has accentuated the perceived sense of injustice in the region. The restoration of statehood to J&K has been a precondition of regional parties in the Valley — a legitimate demand given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment on the floor of Parliament. Restoring the democratic process and bringing back Kashmiri parties into the national political mainstream serves the twin purpose of domestic political stability and international messaging. The all-party initiative must be seen against the backdrop of a thaw in the Indo-Pak relations, marked by Islamabad toning down its rhetoric on the abrogation of Article 370. Any progress, even if it is modest, on the domestic engagement in Kashmir will strengthen the chances of rapprochement with Pakistan — though there must be no let-up on the security front. Creating a political buffer in the Valley will help on the diplomatic front at a time when the Taliban is set to head back to power in Kabul given the prevalence of cross-border terror networks. There is no time to be lost on the part of the Centre to make sincere attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people.