On August 23, Satya Pal Malik was sworn in as the 13th governor of Jammu and Kashmir. The appointment of Malik, a career politician, is significant in a state which has seen a succession of bureaucrats and retired security personnel as governor.

According to a statement by the government, a “modest gathering of 400 dignitaries”, including former chief ministers, serving and former judges, bureaucrats and senior officials of various security forces, attended the oath taking ceremony that was held on the lawns of the Raj Bhavan, overlooking Srinagar’s Dal Lake.

In Kashmir, currently under governor’s rule, Malik is a relatively unknown figure and his appointment has elicited mixed reactions. While Malik’s past affiliation with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which recently walked out of an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party, leading to the collapse of the state government, has given rise to discussion, some see hope in that the Centre has appointed a political figure as governor. According to a section of the Valley-based politicians and observers, it could spell the beginning of a more political approach to the conflict in Kashmir.

‘The socialist’

Born in Hiswada village of Uttar Pradesh, Malik, 72, has been with several parties over the decades. His political reputation, however, identifies him as a “socialist”. According to KC Tyagi, a member of the Rajya Sabha who served in various parties along with Malik and is now a member of the Janata Dal (United), the governor was once a prominent socialist youth leader in Meerut.

Tyagi said Malik was inspired by stalwarts of India’s socialist movement such as Ram Manohar Lohia and Kashmir’s Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. “Sheikh Abdullah was a role model for him, he was an icon like Lohia,” said Tyagi. The MP remembered Malik as a “sophisticated” and “well behaved” politician but with “nothing remarkable” in his approach to work.

Malik was elected to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in 1974 as a candidate of the Lok Dal. In 1980, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha. In 1984, Malik joined the Congress, becoming general secretary of the party’s Uttar Pradesh unit the following year. In 1986, Malik was again elected to the Rajya Sabha.

In 1987, he moved to the Jan Morcha led by VP Singh. After the Jan Morcha merged with the Janata Dal, Malik won the 1989 Lok Sabha election from Aligarh. However, Tyagi said, after disagreements with VP Singh, Malik joined the Samajwadi Party. Finally, in 2004, he joined the BJP. In late 2017, Malik was appointed governor of Bihar and later given additional charge of Odisha.

Tyagi and Malik were colleagues in the Janata Dal during VP Singh’s tenure as prime minister. In those years, Tyagi said, the approach to Kashmir was “different”; it was felt that dialogue was the only solution to the problem and everyone in the party, including Malik, agreed on this. Malik was also in favour of greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, said Tyagi, even though he was considered close to Arun Nehru, who supported Jagmohan’s appointment as governor of Jammu and Kashmir in 1990, despite opposition from other parliamentarians. It was Jagmohan’s second tenure as the state’s governor, and it is remembered in Kashmir as one of the worst periods of state repression.

Getting political

Malik’s socialist background and political career has given rise to cautious optimism among political parties in Jammu and Kashmir.

Senior National Conference legislator Ali Mohammad Sagar called Malik’s appointment as yet another “experiment” in a state where “experiments are routinely carried out”. But he conceded that Malik’s political background made him “a better choice as Kashmir is a political problem and a governor with a political background can understand the problem and its offshoots in a nice way”. If the appointment really stemmed from Delhi’s willingness to understand the political nature of the Kashmir problem, Sagar said, “we should appreciate it”.

The People’s Democratic Party openly welcomed the appointment of a “non-military person” and hoped for greater political outreach. Najmu Saqib, the party’s additional spokesperson, said they “wished Governor sahab all the best for any endeavours for the delivery of good governance” and hoped for “a forward momentum on political processes and outreach to all political parties”. Saqib said the party also expected the governor to mount “a solid legal defence as far as sensitive issues like the revocation of Article 35A and Article 370 go.”

The two provisions constitute the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Both have been challenged in the Supreme Court. The Valley is currently roiled by the challenge to Article 35A, which lets the state legislature define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir, give them certain rights and privileges, and prevents non-residents from acquiring immovable property.

Ashok Kaul, state general secretary of the BJP, said the appointment of Malik would have “a good impact” on the state. He did not, however, see it as a signal that the Centre was changing its approach to Kashmir.

BJP’s move?

Political observers, however, feel Malik’s appointment does indeed signal greater political engagement from Delhi and a shift away from the security approach. But some say it could also mean greater political manoeuvring by the BJP in the state, which is currently without an elected government.

Speculation was rife that after the Amarnath Yatra ended later this month, there would be a security crackdown. But Malik’s appointment suggests such fears were misplaced, said Bashir Manzar, editor of the daily Kashmir Images. “If they wanted a security crackdown, why did they not get an army general?” he asked. “If that is what they want, then he [Malik] will completely depend on the police chiefs and the army chiefs for inputs.”

Malik’s appointment could create an opportunity for the BJP to form a government, Manzar added. “There is better understanding between one politician and another,” he explained. The outgoing governor, NN Vohra, he said, was believed to be against government formation in the near future.

But governor’s rule can only last six months, after which the President directly rules the state. That, Manzar said, would take Kashmir back to the pre-1996 days when the currents of militancy were strong. “That will be India’s defeat internationally,” he said.

Aijaz Wani, associate professor of political science at Kashmir University, felt that the BJP has addressed concerns about Delhi’s “muscular policy” by appointing Malik. The BJP, he said, has “tried to give an impression that it is not shy of going for the political way”.

But it has also signalled that the party wants to strengthen its hold over the state, Wani added. “The BJP has its political ambitions to fulfil in J&K” he said. “It is not all about administration for BJP. So rather than going for an administrator they preferred a career politician, who, while carrying forward the job from the predecessor can serve the party at the same time.”

The choice of Malik, he said, was “a calculated move”. He did not come from a purely Sangh Parivar background, which “could have raised eyebrows in many quarters, including pro-Indian parties in the state”. “They chose a man who has diverse experience,” he said. “He has engaged with different ideologies across the political spectrum, but at the same time rose to be BJP vice president. Therefore, BJP must be pinning its hopes on him.”

But Wani also said it was too early to comment on the long-term impact of a political appointment. The last time Kashmir had a governor with a political background was in the 1960s. Karan Singh, appointed the state’s first governor in March 1965, was the son of the last Dogra monarch to rule the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and went on to join the Congress. Since then, Wani said, “we have only seen bureaucrats and military men. So a comparison is not possible”.

Wani said “the new governor can facilitate government formation”. But he had a word of caution: “Most importantly, if the BJP uses its political choice only for its power politics at the cost of the deteriorating political situation in the state it will have disastrous consequences.”