Print edition : December 17, 2004

The initiatives the "non-politician" Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has launched for "problem States" such as Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur meet with wide appreciation. The question is, how he and his team plan to take them forward.

in New Delhi

At a meeting addressed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Srinagar on November 17.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

EVEN his most ardent admirers would not attribute the qualities of a classical politician to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In fact, his inability to don the role of a politician was talked about as a key shortcoming when he was chosen for the post of Prime Minister by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The absence of a political orientation in his style of functioning was further highlighted in the early days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government when Manmohan Singh went about setting up a Prime Minister's Office (PMO) with a singular focus on professional officers, devoid of high-profile political personalities and bureaucrats.

Six months down the line, however, a new and somewhat ironical element has been added to the debate. People are now wondering whether these perceived weaknesses can be turned into strengths, in terms of launching new initiatives to solve some of the country's most vexed problems. This twist is in greater focus after Manmohan Singh's recent visits to the States of Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur and Assam.

Over the past five and a half decades, several Prime Ministers have gone to these regions with formulas for solutions, but recorded little success. It is too early to say whether Manmohan Singh's approach would make a better contribution towards a comprehensive solution, but there is widespread appreciation that it has been characterised by originality and freshness.

The most telling demonstration of these qualities came in Manipur, a State that was literally up in arms for over four months over the killing of Thangjam Manorama, an alleged activist of the banned Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), by personnel of the Assam Rifles. In this context, it would have been difficult to imagine the enthusiastic reception that the Prime Minister received in Imphal.

The popular response in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam was not the same, but in these States too the newness of Manmohan Singh's approach was extensively accepted. Central to this new approach, say a clutch of politicians and officers working closely with him, is the openness with which he has decided to address the social and political issues in the problem areas. A Congress leader who is part of his "think tank" on Jammu and Kashmir points out that the Prime Minister's approach is characterised by an admission that there are no rigid or readymade solutions to these problems.

Officials in the PMO say that the social and political turbulence in large parts of the country has been a matter of concern for the Prime Minister and right from day one he started working on ways to address them. "This was not confined to the problem States that he visited but also to other areas where people turned to organisations working outside the constitutional framework, such as the naxalite groups," said an official.

According to the official, Manmohan Singh listed the following points to be factored under his approach: the government needs to accept that there is a sense of disaffection among large sections of the population towards the Central government and the mainstream polity; the government's primary task is to pursue a line that emphasises the rejection of violence, either from the disaffected population or from the government, as a means to finding a solution; and while addressing the disaffection of sections of the population and rejecting violence as a means to finding a solution, the government also needs to assert that there will be no second partition of the country.

According to a senior official in the PMO, Manmohan Singh is ready to discuss any specific matter or demand and take initiatives based on them, adhering to these three parameters and that his approach is characterised by a judicious mixture of flexibility and firmness. The measures that he initiated, particularly in Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir amply reflected this understanding.

During his visits to the three States, the Prime Minister emphasised that he has no economic packages to offer as a gift that would alleviate the deep sense of social distress felt by the people of the regions. In Imphal he said that he had not come there "to give money or announce packages", but agreed to "definitely respond to the demands for specific projects".

THE difference in Manmohan Singh's approach becomes all the more distinct when one considers the packages offered to some of these States in the past and the results they have produced so far. H.D. Deve Gowda visited the northeastern region as Prime Minister in 1996 with a package worth Rs.6,100 crores and Atal Bihari Vajapyee unravelled a package of Rs.10,217 crores in 1998 from the National Democratic Alliance government he headed.

Less than a decade later, the government machinery has no clue as to how far the packages have been implemented or how much they have contributed to the solution of the problems of the region. At best, the packages have become instruments to score political points between various parties in the region (see separate story). Manmohan Singh's other initiatives, as well as the adherence to specific issues and the parameters he has defined for the government, too underline the difference from past exercises of a similar nature.

In Manipur, the Apunba Lup, a federation of 32 organisations that spearheaded the mass agitation in the State, had three major demands: it sought justice in the case of the killing of Thangjam Manorama; reiterated the long-standing demand for removing the Assam Rifles from the historic Kangla Fort, the ancient seat of power of Manipur royalty; and asked for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Congress leaders Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad and Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

The second demand was accepted by the Central government long ago but not implemented; Manmohan Singh gave directions for its immediate implementation. In fact, the symbolic gesture by the Assam Rifles in handing over the key to the fort to the Chief Minister turned out to be a high point of the Prime Minister's Manipur visit. Manmohan Singh also expressed his readiness to review the AFSPA, something that earlier Prime Ministers had considered impossible. An expert panel has been appointed and it has already started work on the process of reviewing the situation in this regard.

In Kashmir, too, Manmohan Singh's new style was distinct as he indicated a readiness to restore all substantive and reasonable aspects of Jammu and Kashmir's pre-1953 autonomy. He made it clear that there would be no concessions on the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India and the Election Commission of India in the State; the suggestion did, however, evoke an approving response even from the National Conference, the principal Opposition party in the State, which did not find much merit in the other aspects of Manmohan Singh's visit.

While declaring that India is open to negotiations with any group in Jammu and Kashmir, the Prime Minister stressed his second point by stating that there would be no partitioning of the State along communal lines. This and the indications he gave about reintroducing provisions that would give some autonomy to the State are being viewed as actions that will strengthen the moderate forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Equally importantly, the statement sent out the message to Pakistan and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC): that India would not make any territorial concessions to its neighbour and that the APHC would not be allowed to control the dialogue process through its constantly shifting positions.

In Kashmir, Manmohan Singh presented an economic package for reconstruction worth Rs.24,000 crores, but here too the stress was on proposals such as the reduction of troops and the lifting of the ban on fresh recruitment in State government services. Even the economic package had a special significance as it was made clear that that was no largesse from the Prime Minister. It was emphasised that the package consisted of a component of Rs.18,000 crores, which would be spent on specific Centrally sponsored schemes in the State.

In Assam, too, the messages of the visit were similar. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the main extremist outfit here, was told that the Centre was open to negotiations but without compromising the country's sovereignty. The ULFA does not seem to have responded positively to this, particularly in the context of its persistent demand that sovereignty is an issue to be discussed. However, there are indications in the aftermath of his visit that informal channels are open to bring the militant outfit to the negotiating table. Not surprisingly, Manmohan Singh's visit to Assam is viewed by political observers as not having had as redeeming an effect as his visits to Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir.

The more important question, however, in the context of his visit to the "problem States" and the atypical initiatives he has launched is how he and his team plan to take them forward. Of particular importance are questions on how the Manipur expert panel will review the AFSPA and how the government will manoeuvre through the complex political groupings in Kashmir. The fact that the Apunba Lup has set December 10 as the deadline for the repeal of the AFSPA should impart a sense of urgency to the follow-up in the case of Manipur.

Clearly, Manmohan Singh and his team have to think in terms of concrete steps. Mere assertions on the "openness of approach" and "the acceptance of non-availability of readymade solutions" may not be enough from now on, especially on account of the hopes and aspirations the visits have generated. Perhaps it is time for the "successful" non-traditional politician in Manmohan Singh to acquire some traditional political skills too.

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