February 28, 2020
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Halfway Handshake

For the Valley, it was first a snub, then conciliatory moves

Halfway Handshake

Will the Centre and the National Conference (NC) now discuss the 1975 autonomy formula instead of the 1953 one? Or will the autonomy resolution be referred to the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC)? It took the death of Farooq Abdullah’s mother Begum Akbar Jahan to change the atmospherics on Kashmir. With the government rejecting Farooq’s pre-1953 autonomy resolution and Farooq calling a meeting of the NC’s working committee to deliberate on whether to stay on in the NDA government, the issue had degenerated into a stalemate. The question was, who would blink first? The death of Begum Akbar Jahan, widow of Sheikh Abdullah, solved that problem.

A.B. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and George Fernandes flew into Srinagar to pay their last respects to the begum and it appeared that a thaw had set in. Vajpayee, sensitive to fluctuations in the political mood, took the first step by going to Srinagar and extending an invitation to a sulking CM to discuss the issue all over again in Delhi. Farooq agreed but that remains just one part of the story.

The turnaround in standpoints from both sides caught most people by surprise. While there was intense speculation both in Delhi and Srinagar about what the next step would be after the autonomy proposal was turned down by New Delhi, there clearly was considerable ‘rethinking’ on both sides. Some analysts here say that Vajpayee, despite pressure from his own party, decided to go ahead and visit Srinagar. Of course, Vajpayee emphasised that there was no going back on the status that the Jammu and Kashmir assembly had wanted; there could, however, be discussions.

But the key issues remain unanswered. What would the Centre and Kashmir now discuss after the autonomy proposal had been turned down? Did Farooq have another agenda to discuss? Would the Centre agree on the 1975 accord between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah, also known as the Beg-Parthasarthy accord? Says a prime ministerial aide: "We are waiting to see what sort of autonomy Farooq wants."

But Farooq again seemed playing the scarlet pimpernel. Expected to be in Delhi by July 15 as tentatively discussed, he cancelled it citing personal reasons for being in Srinagar. His mother’s last rites were being performed, so he could not leave town until they were over. That did not, however, deter the chief minister’s coming to Delhi to accept the prestigious B.C. Roy award and then getting back almost immediately to Srinagar. Could he be playing hard to get? "Not true," says one of his aides. "Accepting awards is one thing, discussing details of autonomy is something else."

But clearly, after being rebuffed once, Farooq is not taking chances. That he is keen to test waters became obvious by the visit of his legal affairs man Pyarelal Handoo, who was here on what he called a personal visit. Even though the visit was personal, there are indications that Handoo is informally checking out all options. Handoo told reporters that pre-1953 was not the main issue in any case and that the NC was willing to discuss 1975 as well.

On the other hand, sources in Srinagar say Farooq doesn’t seem in a hurry. So the NC working committee, whose meeting was cancelled in the wake of Begum’s demise, would be picking up the threads. "Farooq wants total consensus in the NC before he goes ahead," says a colleague.

The thinking in the central government has also seemed to mellow a little. Vajpayee, never the confrontationist, prevailed on his coalition partners to see reason. After all, devolution of powers, which both he and Advani have been propagating, applied to Kashmir as well. The PM also reportedly told his colleagues that even after the autonomy motion was returned by the Centre, Farooq displayed restraint and despite pressures, didn’t peremptorily walk out of the NDA, as some expected. With such posturing, the stage is now set for Farooq to come to Delhi and begin discussions. The date’s not yet fixed but, in the words of an aide, that’s a formality that can be fixed once the agenda is clear and minds meet.

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