Given the backdrop of the impending Assembly election to the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly, People's Conference leader Sajjad Lone's recent meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was more than about courtesy. After all, few leaders from the separatist camp (present or past) have dropped by to meet the country's Prime Minister, even in the Congress-led UPA days when they were pampered. Mr Lone has moved away from the separatist groups, unlike his brother Bilal Lone who remains with the so-called moderate faction of the Hurriyat, and has committed himself to tread the democratic, electoral path. To that extent, he is now among the Kashmiri mainstream leaders, although it is also true that he has in the recent past given statements that have been inimical to India's stated position on issues such as the hanging of terrorist Afzal Guru. Nevertheless, if Mr Lone is seeking to broadbase his political ideology, it must be welcomed. From the Bharatiya Janata Party's perspective, Mr Lone’s outreach to the Prime Minister comes as good news. While there are reports that the BJP is surging in popularity in Jammu and Ladakh ahead of the State election and could even end up cornering a very major share of seats in these regions, it is Kashmir valley where the party is still weak. It is true that many Kashmiri men and women, including the youth, have in recent weeks joined the BJP and that the party can hope for a decent performance in constituencies of the valley where the non-Muslim Kashmiri population is significant. As such, it makes sense for the BJP to strike relations with political leaders who have a base elsewhere in the valley. Mr Lone is one such figure, although he has not had much electoral success in the past. He is not having a pre-poll tie-up with the BJP, but there is no saying that an arrangement will not be struck in the post-result scenario, depending on the numbers the electorate throws up. For now, speculating on that will be like trying to cross the bridge before coming to it. What is of immediate significance is that the BJP has initiated a serious outreach to the Kashmiri people, and the response has been encouraging.

One of the first indications of that was evident when Prime Minister Modi spent his Diwali in Srinagar to be with the flood-affected victims of the valley. He has been taking a keen interest in the relief and rehabilitation work. And, while he has not openly criticised the State Government led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah for its failure to adequately respond to the tragedy, others have. Interestingly, not just the Opposition People's Democratic Party but also those elements who have been traditionally opposed to the BJP and Mr Modi, came out in support of the Prime Minister's initiatives and slammed Mr Abdullah. It is clear that the Centre's efforts and the perceived inefficiency of the State regime have given the BJP an advantage it never had in the valley. With 46 Assembly seats up for grabs in Kashmir, the BJP is hoping that its political outreach there will at the very least give it a leg-room. More importantly, the party hopes to banish its image of a pariah in the valley. It has previously done business with the likes of the National Conference and the PDP at the Centre, but not from a position of strength in Jammu & Kashmir. Things could be different this time. Pioneer

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