Manoj Sinha, Lt Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, at the Independence Day ceremony in Srinagar, August 15 (Photo: AP)
WHEN FORMER Union Minister Manoj Sinha left for Delhi from his home in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the first week of August, even his closest aides were clueless about the new assignment he was being entrusted with. As always, he travelled with just a suitcase by the train he usually took, the Shiv Ganga Express. A couple of days later, he was in Srinagar taking oath as Lieutenant Governor (L-G) of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), wearing his trademark kurta and dhoti.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader slipped into the role of J&K L-G as quietly as he made a last-minute exit from the race for chief ministership of UP in 2017. Those who have known him closely say that as was characteristic of him, he maintained a placid demeanour giving out nothing, even when Yogi Adityanath, a Member of Parliament (MP) from Eastern UP like him, was chosen to be Chief Minister, a post he was seen to be tipped for till the last moment.
About three years later, the political heavyweight from UP landed in Srinagar as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emissary in J&K, replacing Girish Chandra Murmu, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, who is now Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). It had been exactly a year since Article 370, which granted special status to the undivided state, was scrapped and J&K was bifurcated into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, effective from October 31st, 2019 .
Amid scepticism and hope about ‘Modi’s man’ in Srinagar, Sinha has wasted no time before getting down to working on his complicated and challenging mandate: fulfilling the Government’s promises on development and gaining the trust of the people in the sensitive Union Territory.
Stoic, low-profile, untainted and with the backing of the leadership in Delhi, he has started making out-of-the-box moves. Sinha spelt out his mission after hoisting the Tricolour at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium in Srinagar on Independence Day. Wearing a green kurta, a gamchha (stole) and a pyjama, he spoke of changing the narrative of Kashmir from sectarianism to development, peace, progress and social harmony. He recalled the region’s tradition, from Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and Shankaracharya’s Advaita to Sufi Islam and Buddhist philosophy, as a symbol of the syncretism of its inhabitants. He said it was known for bravehearts like Brigadier Rajinder Singh and Brigadier Mohammad Usman and is the land of Rishi Kashyap, Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak and Buddha: “We have to carry forward this legacy of religious inclusivity.”
Just hours earlier, addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, the Prime Minister had said that once delimitation was over, an election would be held in J&K to elect a chief minister. But till that happens, which sources say could take at least a year, Sinha will be in charge. According to a person familiar with the developments, there is a proposal to appoint advisors from across political parties, including the National Conference (NC) and the J&K Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), provided they agreed to the proposal. Both these parties had boycotted his swearing-in ceremony, ignoring invitations sent to them. Under Murmu, the L-G had four civil servants as advisors: Kewal Kumar Sharma, Farooq Khan, Rajeev Bhatnagar and Baseer Ahmed Khan. Under Sinha, this number is proposed to be increased.
The precarious political situation in the Union Territory requires more than a bureaucrat at the helm, and Sinha’s appointment is seen as a signal to revive political activities. “In Sinha, we have a very senior, erudite and experienced leader. He has experience in public life as a politician and in administration as a minister. That will be of great help. He comes from the party ranks and understands the priorities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah,” says Ram Madhav, BJP General Secretary in-charge of J&K.
By appointing Sinha, who has a political background, the BJP leadership is hoping to take a multi-pronged approach: establishing a link between the government and people; handling the bureaucracy, on which the Union Territory is highly dependent; and pushing the development process. “The idea is that the state should be like any other state in the country,” says Madhav.
While Sinha is seen as a better choice for the job than his two predecessors, Satya Pal Malik and Murmu, several analysts view his appointment with ambivalence, wondering if political bridges can be built ignoring resentment over the scrapping of Article 370. The BJP is of the view that the disgruntlement over it will wane once development starts trickling down. In his Independence Day speech, Sinha pointed out that the constitutional change in 2019 has led to 50 decisions to usher in normalcy and development in J&K.
ONE OF THE first steps taken by Sinha, who has laid stress on education, health and infrastructure, was to hold a meeting with vice chancellors of universities at the Raj Bhavan. He asked them to prepare a roadmap to improve the functioning of universities, make suggestions on how J&K could benefit from the National Education Policy 2020, ensure gender equality and submit a report on initiatives taken by the universities in the last few years.
“Education and economy have suffered the most. I hope he can bring about a change, particularly in the education sector. We have to wait and watch. He has to gain the trust of the people,” says Noor Ahmed Baba, Professor, Department of Politics and Governance, Central University of Kashmir.
Those who have known Sinha, a civil engineer and an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (Banaras Hindu University), since his student days, say that, as a popular student leader, he had shown leadership qualities when he was doing his BTech in the early 1980s. It was in his nature to help any student, says BN Rai, Dean of Student Affairs, IIT (BHU), recalling his own experience. Rai had just joined as an MTech student when he had an accident. Sinha, senior to him and a stranger then, rushed him to hospital.
“Samosa used to be a big thing those days. He would treat everyone around to samosas though he got the same scholarship amount of Rs 600 as other students. He was very popular and had friends across parties,” says Rai. In college, Sinha played volleyball, wore trousers and a shirt and always had a shikha, a common practice among Hindu men whereby a long tuft of hair is left on top of the head. Once he joined politics, he started wearing dhoti and kurta. Rai says that even during 2004-2014, when he was not an MP, he had as many visitors as when he was in Lok Sabha.
In 1989, Sinha, a Bhumihar from eastern UP, had filed his nomination from Ghazipur, his birthplace, for the first time. On the last day of withdrawal of nominations, he withdrew assuming the party was planning to put up some other candidate. But the BJP had decided on him. In the absence of a candidate, the BJP and Janata Dal backed an Independent, Jagdish Kushwaha, who won the election. Sinha won from Ghazipur in the 1996, 1999 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In 1999, during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, he was named among the best performing parliamentarians. All through his terms in Lok Sabha, he used his entire fund from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme for his constituency. In 2019, when opposition parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), aligned to take on the BJP, he was offered to fight from another seat, but he refused saying that he had done development work in Ghazipur and would prefer to contest from there. Sinha, then Union telecom minister, lost to BSP’s Afzal Ansari, gangster-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari’s brother. A close aide says Sinha sees victory and defeat as part of politics and no one can ever make out what is going on in his mind.
He is now trying to reach out to the youth of J&K. A tweet by the official handle of the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), J&K, on August 15th said: ‘Lt Governor Manoj Sinha said that youth has the power of transformation, his own student life was marked with activism; he asked the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to direct their activism towards development as future leaders of the country.’
Sinha’s biggest challenge is to mitigate the misgivings on the ground. Meanwhile, the Government plans to take forward a slew of development measures, including longpending reforms, schemes for the underprivileged, strengthening grassroots democracy, Prime Minister’s Development Project for infrastructure, which includes water and power for all and a road to every village, steps to improve trade and plans for a new industrial policy for the region, while containing militancy. As per official statistics, instances of stonepelting came down to 389 in 2019 from 532 in 2018.
“Manoj Sinha is the fourth occupant of the Raj Bhavan in a little over two years. I doubt his proximity to Modi will make any difference by itself, unless Delhi discards the entrenched, notorious vested interests and reconstitutes the administrative apparatus in Kashmir forthwith,” says political analyst Javed Iqbal Shah. While he acknowledges that Sinha might be taken more seriously than those before him, he is of the view that for any political activity to resume, some minimum confidence of the people in the administration and a semblance of governance and normalcy are foremost prerequisites.
“Administrators like NN Vohra and GC Saxena were nonpolitical but their prior familiarity of Kashmir affairs, integrity and sound administrative acumen helped in creating conducive conditions for elections and the revival of political process in the past,” Shah says.
In Manoj Sinha, we have a very senior, erudite and experienced leader. He has experience in public life as a politician and in administration as a minister. That will be of great help. He comes from the party ranks and understands the priorities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, says Ram Madhav BJP General Secretary in-charge of J&K
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Sinha is the second Governor in J&K after Malik with a political background. The region has been more or less under governors since 1586, when Mughals annexed the region, with brief stints of local governments.
After August 5th last year when Article 370 was scrapped, over 400 Kashmiri politicians and separatists were detained or arrested, including former Chief Ministers Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP and Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah of the NC. Mufti continues to be in detention under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. Omar Abdullah, released after eight months in detention, has said he will not take part in any future electoral process as long as it remains a Union Territory. Internet services were snapped hours before abrogation of the undivided state’s special status. While 2G connections were restored on January 25th, 4G services were revived in two of the 20 districts of the Union Territory on August 17th.
Meanwhile, at the Raj Bhavan, in less than a fortnight into his new assignment, Sinha has held a spate of meetings, including one with representatives of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry. During the interaction, he announced a committee to work out modalities for the economic revival of J&K and extend support to its business community. All eyes are on the Raj Bhavan.