Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s instantaneous positive response to Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech has set off speculation that a meeting between government representatives and the moderate Kashmiri leader may be in the offing.

Although Farooq is under arrest and his main aides are also in jail and are being questioned, his reaction indicates that a back channel is open with the hope of bringing him to the table for talks. A senior government source hinted that there is no option but to talk to the moderate faction of the Hurriyat represented by Farooq to lower temperatures in the Valley.

This is a 180 degree turn from the government’s earlier position of shunning all Hurriyat leaders, including the moderate ones. It suggests a rethink on the hardline policy adopted so far in view of repeated Chinese threats and attempted incursions into Ladakh. Farooq had tweeted immediately after Modi’s speech.

He welcomed the PM’s remarks, saying that if insaaniyat and insaaf replace goli and gaali, then resolution can become a reality. The tweet was the main topic of conversation at the President’s At Home reception on Independence Day with officials, media and political leaders all expressing surprise and satisfaction that Farooq had responded so positively to the PM’s appeal to embrace Kashmiris.

However, skeptics feel that the resumption of a dialogue with the Hurriyat can only happen if the Modi government does more spadework to soothe frayed nerves in the Valley. A key stumbling block is the current controversy over petitions filed by BJP and RSS workers in the Supreme Court demanding the repeal of Article 35 (A).

This article gives teeth to Article 370 which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The skeptics recall that when Atal Behari Vajpayee opened talks with the Hurriyat in 2013 with insaaniyat as the guiding principle, a lot of behind-the scenes groundwork preceded the move. It included secret meetings between top Indian and Pakistani intelligence representatives.

Cause for concern

Narendra Modi’s appeal to embrace the Kashmiri people and eschew gaali and goli was the big buzz at the new President’s first Independence Day At Home reception.

While guests were of course eager to catch a glimpse of the newly elected President, Ram Nath Kovind, it was Modi who was the cynosure of all eyes, at least the eyes of the media. As the PM walked down the red carpet greeting guests and chatting with them, he was hailed by several journalists wanting to congratulate him for his message of peace to the people of Kashmir. The shower of praise from the media tickled Modi who has often blamed journalists for being antagonistic to him.

If the media is praising my speech so much, it is a cause for concern, he joked after he was stopped yet again by a group of eager journalists waiting to congratulate him.

Pecking order

The hierarchy at the President’s Independence Day At Home reception was clearly marked. The inner room was reserved for the VVIPs, including union ministers, diplomats and senior politicians. The outer room was for the rest of the crowd which included top bureaucrats of the government, journalists, friends and leaders of the BJP and RSS and other invitees.

It was into this outer room that Sushma Swaraj mistakenly strayed only to find foreign secretary Jaishankar surrounded by media persons pressing him for insights into government thinking on the India-China standoff at Dokalam, the PM’s remarks on Kashmir, Pakistan, etc. Jaishankar is suave and experienced enough to sidestep questions from the media and he was doing a wonderful job of chatting to everyone without saying anything substantive.

As Swaraj passed him on her way to the VVIP room, she jokingly told the foreign secretary that he should beware of the media and stay away from it.

Message for China?

Was there a message for China in the Modi government’s decision to make Ladakh the first destination for President Kovind? The President visited Ladakh on his maiden outstation tour beginning April 21. The choice of destination was significant in the light of recent Chinese threats on Ladakh.

On Independence Day, there was a stand-off as well between Indian and Chinese soldiers. The Chinese tried to enter Indian territory but were pushed back by Indian troops. The Chinese retaliated by throwing stones at Indian soldiers. Although the President refrained from making a chest-thumping speech when he met Indian troops stationed In Ladakh, the government seems to be sending a strong message to China through his visit not to mess with India by extending territorial claims in the western sector.

Interestingly, Rashtrapati Bhavan did not invite any media representatives, official or private, on this important visit. This is in stark contrast to Pranab Mukherjee who always took a media contingent with him on his travels, both domestic and foreign.

In the limelight

It is clear that despite speculation about their rocky relationship during ten years of UPA rule, Manmohan Singh remains Sonia Gandhi’s most trusted Congress leader.

Sonia was unable to attend the opposition convention organized by dissident JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav in the Capital. Significantly, she sent Manmohan Singh as her representative, not other senior leaders who aspire to become Rahul Gandhi’s chief advisor and mentor when he finally takes over as Congress president.

It is equally interesting that Ahmed Patel was also present and that he delivered a speech at the convention.

Patel has always preferred to be a backroom boy and usually shies away from public presence. His deft victory in the recent Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat, in which he outmaneuvered BJP master strategist Amit Shah, seems to have encouraged him to step out of the backroom and take a frontline position.