Prime Minister Narendra Modi painted a rosy picture of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) during his first visit to the Union Territory that was formed by the bifurcation of the erstwhile State, and also stripped of its special constitutional status, in 2019. Mr. Modi’s speech, on March 7, at a rally in Srinagar and his interaction with local entrepreneurs who have benefited from central schemes, were efforts to win hearts. While Mr. Modi positioned the impressive attendance at his rally as an endorsement of the government’s integrationist approach in the last five years, the Opposition parties have said that at least a part of the attendees were brought there by the administration. The Prime Minister was also addressing the electorate outside of J&K just ahead of the Lok Sabha election. He steered clear of any political outreach and, instead, catalogued the achievements of his government in creating more opportunities for the people. Kashmiris were “breathing free now”, the Prime Minister said. Mr. Modi also trained his guns on the Congress and the two regional parties, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), for “ruining” J&K for seven decades through “self-centric dynastic politics”.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always seen Kashmir as an example of the Indian state’s indecisiveness that it pledged to reverse. The Prime Minister’s speech underlined this perspective of Kashmir as a developmental and management challenge rather than a question of political and cultural federalism. Mr. Modi also urged rich Indians to plan their weddings in Kashmir, asked countrymen overseas to motivate non-Indians to visit the Valley and requested domestic tourists to buy local products to boost employment opportunities in Kashmir. Development of the region may help locals, who have been wounded by decades of conflict, but the restoration of political and democratic rights that have been curtailed since 2019, is also essential. Leaders of the NC and PDP have expressed disappointment with Mr. Modi’s visit, by saying that showcasing the hollowing out of Article 370 as an achievement was akin to rubbing salt into the wounds. Though the Centre may not accept their legitimacy, these parties remain the closest approximation of public opinion in Kashmir. Restoring Statehood and conducting Assembly elections could only be the beginning of the political process in Kashmir, which continues to face multiple challenges that range from militancy to revolving-door detentions of youth. The BJP will be using its Kashmir policy in its campaigning in the run-up to the election to sway public opinion in its strongholds, but it should also pay attention to public opinion in the Valley.

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