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Manmohan begins Jammu & Kashmir visit today

Wednesday 17 November 2004

By Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, NOV. 16. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, leaves tomorrow on a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir for what is being described as an attempt to touch the "hearts and minds" of the people of the State.

This will be Dr. Singh’s first visit to the State as Prime Minister. He will be accompanied by a high-level official delegation, including the Union Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress general secretary, Ambika Soni, who is in-charge of Jammu and Kashmir, and N.N. Vohra, official interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the Prime Minister’s aides, the trip would largely be an exercise in a "two-way communication", listening and talking with the broadest possible cross-section of civil society. The Prime Minister is scheduled to address two public meetings in Srinagar and Jammu. He will also interact with the Unified Command leadership in Jammu.

The Prime Minister hopes, according to his aides, to listen carefully to what the people and groups in the State have to say about the problems and possible "solutions"; these inputs would then help him formulate a long-term strategy on Kashmir. He is reported to have already met here almost every conceivable "expert" on Jammu and Kashmir affairs.

’Not a Santa Claus’

At the same time, Dr. Singh is reported to be keen on shifting the focus away from "packages". The announcement of "packages" is seen as a ritual which has outlived its usefulness. "He will certainly not want to play the Santa Claus," as an aide put it. Instead, the focus will be on unveiling a plan for a long-term reconstruction of Kashmir’s economy. The emphasis will be on employment, investment and development.

Those who have planned the trip want to steer it away from the usual preoccupation with the "Hurriyat" factor. Far too much importance and attention gets attached to whether or not this or that faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference meets any visitor from New Delhi. For instance, the Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil’s recent visit was pronounced a "failure" because the Hurriyat leaders did not meet him.

The thinking in New Delhi is clear: if the Hurriyat leaders want to meet the Prime Minister, they will be accommodated; if not, it is a minor footnote. The Hurriyat is deemed to represent only one slice, and a rather small slice at that, of Kashmir civil society. In any case, Dr. Singh is scheduled to meet a large section of the people in Srinagar. The visit is not planned as part of any "political dialogue", rather it is meant to consolidate the mood created by the Prime Minister’s announcement of troop reduction in Jammu and Kashmir.

However, the Centre is also clear that it would be building on the groundwork done during the National Democratic Alliance regime, including Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s two visits in 2003 as well as the commitments made in the Musharraf-Vajpayee statement in Islamabad on January 6, 2004; the spirit of that Islamabad statement was carried forward in the Musharraf-Manmohan Singh joint statement from Roosevelt Hotel in New York in September 2004.

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