Modi and manifesto

Is he moderating his party's position on Article 370, or reiterating it? Modi has stoked the question.

Narendra Modi touched off many ripples when he spoke of a debate on Article 370, which gives Jammu and Kashmir autonomy in matters of citizenship, property ownership and other rights. At a rally in Jammu, Modi suggested debating whether Article 370 had helped the common citizen, leading to many interpretations of his motives. In the RSS and BJP worldview, the existence of Article 370 implies favouritism and special treatment to the Muslim-majority state. In its manifesto, the party has expressed staunch commitment to scrapping it, though it has been conspicuously silent on the matter while in power at the Centre.

So did Modi mean to stand apart from his party and suggest that one of its ironclad principles was open to discussion and empirical testing? If Article 370 is now negotiable, could the party also soften its view on its other "core issues"? It is possible that Modi was indicating his movement to the centre, to appeal to more constituencies, knowing that doctrinaire purity is impossible to maintain when in government. As prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, constrained by other forces, eschewed any mention of Article 370, reaching out to Kashmir through poetic euphemism about a solution within the ambit of humanity. In the recent past, Modi has made several attempts to recast his own image whether in his relatively muted rhetoric on Pakistan, or even his Patna speech about how Hindus and Muslims should fight the common enemy of poverty. The latter speech, though, was soon undone by the irresponsible and gimmicky "asthi kalash yatra" in Bihar.

It is possible that Modi's offer of a "debate" on Article 370 was not intended as an open question, after all, but to reassert the party's position on the article as one that undermines the organic unity of India, and to foreclose the other view. Others in the BJP continue to make the case that Article 370 is the reason Kashmiris are not part of the Indian mainstream. Modi, too, asserted in his Jammu speech that Article 370 had been used as a shield for communalism, and that even Nehru had not wanted it to exist in perpetuity. Either way, whether he was trying to nudge his party towards the centre or not, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate may well have inadvertently posed another interesting question: is it possible to sustain ambiguity, and for how long, on a crucial issue in such a high-decibel and high-visibility campaign?

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