JAMMU and Kashmir has gone without an elected government for more than a month now. The State came under Governor’s rule after incumbent Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed passed away on January 7 and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader and Mufti Sayeed’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, refused to assume charge as Chief Minister. Party leaders first claimed that she was reluctant to take the oath of office since the oath-taking ceremony was scheduled during the mourning period. Subsequently, they cited another reason for her reluctance, that she was rethinking the PDP’s coalition in the State with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A stalemate ensued with Mehbooba Mufti coming out with a fresh demand that the BJP spell out certain confidence-building measures.
After meeting the Governor, N.N. Vohra, on February 3, Mehbooba Mufti asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP to be more considerate towards Jammu and Kashmir by taking confidence-building measures and creating an atmosphere for efficient governance. “I am not like Mufti Saheb . I don’t have his experience, wisdom,” she said, making a point that she was in a way inexperienced to head a State that is caught in conflict. Although she endorsed the alliance with the BJP at a meeting in Srinagar and vowed to carry forward her father’s vision, she later admitted that this alliance was unpopular but “Mufti went ahead with it in the interest of carrying the entire State together”.
It is a known fact that Mufti Sayeed was heading a tricky coalition with the BJP, a partnership he had formed after intense backroom and open negotiations. The BJP is perceived as anti-Muslim by most of the majority Muslim population in the State and the PDP owes its existence to this vote bank. Mufti Sayeed justified the alliance by saying that it was established to reconnect the two divergent (religiously) regions of Kashmir and Jammu. His argument was that while the BJP bagged 25 seats in the Hindu-dominated Jammu, the PDP won 28 seats in Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim. “I will not contribute to any further breaking of the State along communal lines,” he told this writer in 2015 when negotiations for forging an alliance were going on. But Mehbooba Mufti acknowledged the dominant sentiment of her political constituency, Kashmir, that the alliance had not gone well with the people.
Mufti Sayeed not only chose to go against the popular perception in Kashmir that the PDP’s alliance with the BJP would open the doors for the entry of the BJP’s Hindutva fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), into the Kashmir Valley but he went the extra mile by praising Modi by saying that he was “not at all a communal person”. This “sweeping” certificate for Modi naturally did not go down well, given the fact that hundreds of Muslims were massacred during the 2002 riots in Gujarat when Modi was heading that State. But Mufti Sayeed stood his ground and told his voters that the coalition would follow the agenda of alliance and deliver on its promises. However, nothing much was achieved in the first 10 months of PDP-BJP rule. Kashmir witnessed devastating floods in September 2014, but the Modi government at the Centre dithered on a compensation package until November 2015. And when the compensation came it did not match the losses the people had suffered. A meagre Rs.1,200 crore was released towards flood relief a day before Mufti Sayeed passed away, that too after Mehbooba Mufti spoke to Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley when he came to see her father at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.
Except for two issues—a package for Kashmiri Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus who left the Valley in the 1990s) and the refugees who came from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)—all other issues have remained unattended. Not only has the BJP shown little respect for the agenda of alliance, which the PDP leader Naeem Akhtar termed as “sacred”, but it has tried everything at the party level to make the State government uncomfortable. BJP functionaries went to court to bring up the controversial beef issue, which had an adverse reaction in Kashmir. A BJP national-level functionary filed a petition in the High Court challenging the separate State flag for Jammu and Kashmir, pushing the PDP to the wall. It is ironic that in both cases, the BJP was a party on both sides, a petitioner and respondent. Another critical issue, which a non-governmental organisation (NGO) sponsored by the RSS vigorously pursued, was the case challenging Article 35 A of the Constitution, which protects the State’s special identity within the Constitution. The BJP continued to raise the issue of Article 370 (granting special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir), although the BJP and the PDP had agreed to a stand on the issue in the agenda of alliance.
Against this background, when Mehbooba Mufti is expected to step into her father’s shoes, she is naturally in a serious dilemma. A lawyer by profession, Mehbooba Mufti joined politics in 1996 only to please her father. She was nominated to the Bijbehara Assembly constituency in South Kashmir on the Congress ticket when her father, who had returned to his parent party, could not find the right candidate as militancy had taken root in Kashmir. Mufti Sayeed fielded his wife, Gulshan Begum, in Pahalgam. Mehbooba Mufti was able to strike a chord with the families that were victims of the violence. She was elected to the Assembly but she resigned in 1999 when she and her father decided to launch the PDP. Mehbooba Mufti’s “soft separatism” and her disenchantment with the traditional political power in the State—the National Conference—worked well to secure the PDP 16 seats in the 87-member State Assembly in 2002, paving the way for the PDP-Congress coalition government which lasted almost the full term of six years before the alliance broke.
But party insiders say that Mehbooba Mufti would be restless with her party in power as she is a person who enjoyed being a vocal opposition leader. That is perhaps the reason why she is against the alliance with the BJP. Today, when she is alone in deciding the future of the alliance, it is not an easy road for her. Mehbooba Mufti appears to have changed the history of power transition. When Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah passed away on September 8, 1982, the baton was passed on to his son Farooq Abdullah the same evening. Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister on October 31, 1984. But Mehbooba Mufti, not caring about the political conspiracies thriving around her succession, cited mourning as a reason for not assuming charge. Although she was the natural choice for the post, she asked her father’s staff to report back to the government and also sent back the Chief Minister’s cavalcade. “She has not shown any urgency and is taking her time to decide,” one party insider said.
This delay on Mehbooba Mufti’s part has made the BJP nervous. The BJP became a part of the power structure in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in 2015. With its position in Jammu already weakened, the party cannot afford to be out of power. While a new combination of the PDP, the Congress and independents is possible, analysts say it will turn out to be fragile given the State’s dependence on the Centre.
Even as the PDP has hinted at continuing the alliance, Mehbooba Mufti is yet to play her cards. The party’s core committee authorised her to take the decision and she made a significant comment by saying that she believed in her father’s decisions. “I will take my own time. The agenda of alliance is there but I will make sure that I am able to fulfil Mufti Saheb ’s dreams, especially his dreams about political issues and development,” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t mind if I get consumed in it for the welfare of the people and also for the essence of the agenda.” Not only is Mehbooba Mufti in a difficult position as she must not prove her father wrong, the fact that he was “not treated well” by Modi and the BJP is weighing heavily on her mind. At the public meeting organised by the PDP for Modi in Srinagar on November 7, Modi snubbed Mufti Sayeed by saying he did not need advice on Pakistan. A strong advocate of reconciliation with Pakistan, Mufti Sayeed had repeatedly said in his speech that it was important to mend fences with Pakistan.
While Mehbooba Mufti earned some sympathy when she refused to immediately assume chief ministership, her leadership has now come under a severe test. It is understandable that she wants some assurance from the Centre but given the apparent indifference shown by Modi and the BJP, unless some serious negotiations are going on behind the scenes, she may not get a big relief worth the wait. Notwithstanding the fact that her party has authorised her to take the final call, she is already under attack from her arch rival, Omar Abdullah, of the National Conference, who asked her to decide whether to be with the BJP or not. Party leaders may not have aired their views in the open, but many of them are feeling uneasy about the delay in taking a decision. This could lead to dissension in the party, which Mehbooba Mufti may not be in a position to address at the moment. People are also raising the larger issue about the vacuum that existed without a functioning government only because Mehbooba Mufti is unable to take a decision. There is certainly a constituency that would be happy if she ends the alliance, but this is not directly linked to her party. If she decides against government formation, obviously after New Delhi refuses to budge, the State will head for fresh elections. The PDP is not in a position to face the people again. Her current stand might temporarily improve her popularity graph, but the real test is on the ground and it will be difficult for her to translate the renewed goodwill into votes. The party has not done anything extraordinary on the development front, nor has it been able to pursue its agenda of reconciliation within Kashmir and outside. The free democratic space Mufti Sayeed created for the separatists between 2002 and 2005 has shrunk. The most influential leader in the separatist camp, Syed Ali Geelani, has not been allowed to offer Friday prayers for many months now. Restrictions on certain occasions were a routine in the past 10 months. So, there is no visible change on the ground to raise the PDP’s political stock. Given this situation, the National Conference and the Congress would be the beneficiary of the wrong called “alliance with the BJP” and the subsequent political indifference Delhi showed towards the State. To be in power is the only way for both the PDP and the BJP to survive on the scene.
It, however, remains to be seen whether the BJP will concede the demands put forth by Mehbooba Mufti.
It should also not look like a surrender for Modi and a lost game for Mehbooba Mufti. Although the BJP general secretary, Ram Madhav, is believed to be in touch with her, nothing significant has unfolded yet.
While it is not clear whether Mehbooba Mufti will stay with her father’s decision with “more commitments” coming from the Centre, uncertainty prevails in the State and Governor’s rule, for the seventh time since 1947, could prove to be longer this time.