Mission Kashmir will be Manoj Sinha’s biggest test

Manoj Sinha has taken over as Lieutenant-Governor (L-G) of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). His appointment is seen by many as being in keeping with the element of surprise that marks decisions taken by the current government. Has Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi taken a huge risk by delegating this responsibility to Sinha? Is Sinha up to the task of dealing with this very challenging responsibility?

The future can often be deciphered by looking into the past. Sinha is known as a person who has learnt the art of surviving in politics. In 1980, he contested and lost the Banaras Hindu University Students’ Union election. He tried again over the next two years and succeeded in 1982. Similarly, even though he lost a few Lok Sabha elections, he is a three-time former Member of Parliament (MP). The PM made him minister of state for railways in 2014 and later gave him independent charge of the ministry of communications. He did reasonably well in both portfolios. Modi was satisfied with his hard work, honesty and dedication. When Modi spoke at a public meeting in Ghazipur (Uttar Pradesh) during the 2019 elections, in a somewhat unexpected gesture, he asked the audience to first applaud Sinha.

Despite this, he lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. There were indications that the Ghazipur parliamentary constituency was no longer a safe seat for him, thanks to changing social equations. The BJP leadership offered him another seat, but he wanted to fight from Ghazipur which he did and lost.

For some time now, there has been some talk in the corridors of power in Delhi that Sinha would be given a suitable berth somewhere. But what he got last Thursday must certainly have exceeded all his expectations. In his trademark manner, despite being pushed into the background for a while, he has made a somewhat spectacular comeback. How effective will he be in his new post?

To arrive at an answer, one has to look at the unexpected departure of GC Murmu, the outgoing L-G of J&K. As the first L-G, he did a commendable job on the law and order front in the Valley. But his manner of functioning did not go down well with the bureaucracy in the Union Territory (UT). This is the reason he had to return to Delhi in 10 months. He will now take up the new constitutional responsibility as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). In a way, it can also be called a promotion. But there is a difference between Raj Bhavan in Srinagar and just another government bungalow in Delhi.

Murmu, a bureaucrat, was given a number of tasks to execute in J&K. But given the nature of the political and social initiatives he was required to undertake, it was clear that only a politician could have carried them out successfully. The situation in Kashmir is complex. Many people, including political leaders such as former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, are still under house arrest or behind bars. Another former chief minister Omar Abdullah has announced that he will not contest the assembly elections until statehood is restored to J&K. These two families have so far dominated politics in Kashmir.

The Centre believes that the era of the Abdullah and Mufti dynasties is over, and that J&K needs a new brand of politics and politicians. Sinha now has the onerous task of giving opportunities to a new set of politicians who can connect with the elders and bring all sections of society together. He is a veteran politician and has been non-controversial till now. It will be interesting to see how effective his political style will be in the Valley.

Kashmir has been a victim of terrorism for years. The day Sinha’s appointment was being celebrated by his supporters, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sarpanch was shot dead by terrorists in Kashmir. In the past, there have been frequent killings of democratic leaders in the Valley. The security forces have been caught up in a bloody war with terrorists there. So far this year, 206 people have been killed in Kashmir, including 34 security personnel.

The long curfew and shattering impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have also devastated the UT which is already facing a huge economic crisis. According to Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, businessmen have suffered a loss of ~40,000 crores and over half-a-million people in the Valley have become unemployed. Recently, the business community met the home minister and the finance minister to apprise them of their demands and their distress. Given this dire situation, Sinha has his task cut out for him.

The new responsibility is, in effect, a crown of thorns for Sinha. All eyes are now on how he will deal with the fractious UT. Can he convert this crown of thorns into a feather in his cap?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan

The views expressed are personal

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