Just over a week after being voted into power, India’s newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party has ignited criticism after a junior minister called for a debate on the subject of Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomous status. Federal Minister Jitendra Singh, in an apparent off-the-cuff remark, called for a debate on Article 370 of the constitution, which guarantees special, autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir, remarking that the territory should be treated like any other Indian state. This first statement by a member of the BJP government on the delicate matter since the election has sparked an outcry, triggering vocal objections from political parties in the state.
Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti criticized Singh, commenting that he had “no better thing to do on the very first day of his ministry [than to] rake up an issue where he has no control.” Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister Omar Abdullah also stepped into the fray, angrily referring to Singh’s statement as “irresponsible.” In response to the firestorm, the junior minister later walked back his contentious remarks, claiming that he has been “misquoted” and that the entire controversy was “totally baseless,” according to India’s NDTV.
However, it is difficult to take Singh’s protestations at face value. The minister was, after all, merely echoing a vow made by party leader and newly anointed prime minister Narendra Modi during his election campaign. Modi had himself called for the repeal of Article 370 prior to his landslide victory at the polls and, while many aspects of the leader’s foreign policy have continued to remain ambiguous, his hardline approach towards Pakistan seemed apparent vis a vis his clear stance on the Kashmir issue.
Since then, though, Modi has taken the unprecedented step of reaching out to Pakistan’s prime minister, inviting him to his inauguration ceremony last week. Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend the function despite considerable pressure from back home seemed to herald a new leaf in relations between the two regional rivals. According to one Pakistani government official, the Kashmir issue was raised between the two leaders at their meeting on the sidelines of the inaugural celebration. Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs, clarified on Wednesday that initial reports that the issue was sidelined during the meeting were incorrect and that the two leaders had agreed to further dialogue and cooperation.
The hopeful tone from Islamabad following the historic meeting seems incongruous with the BJP’s first foray into the issue via Singh, which immediately provoked concern from Pakistani officials who declared any change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir illegal. The obvious backpedaling by Singh in the wake of this uproar is a pretty clear indication that the BJP is not yet committed to pursuing debate on Article 370 just yet, despite Modi’s campaign pledge. The backlash from pro-India parties in Jammu and Kashmir in particular certainly weighs into their calculations with the political capital stemming from their unprecedented electoral showing in the region weighing in on the other end.
That Modi has already, surprisingly, gotten off on the right foot with Islamabad is another factor in this equation, serving as a disincentive to any hasty political maneuvers around the disputed territory. Singh’s false start on Kashmir aside, it appears that the new prime minister has set out on a more cautious, diplomatic approach towards its regional rival than had been anticipated. If anyone has the political capital to push ahead on the decades-old political nightmare that is the Kashmir issue, it is Modi. The allure of managing to pull off such a feat may just outweigh the political ambitions of his Hindu nationalist base— for the time being, anyway.