The restive state of Jammu and Kashmir is facing another crisis after the death of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed on January 7. His daughter and political heir – the 56-year-old Mehbooba Mufti – has declined to take oath as his successor, saying she is mourning. The state has plunged into Governor’s Rule, which means it will be run directly from New Delhi.
Her father was a leading a tricky coalition with the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) that he had formed after intense negotiations and backdoor give-and-take. BJP is perceived as anti-Muslim by a majority of the people of Kashmir, who comprise the vote bank of Mufti Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The veteran politician justified the alliance saying his move would connect the two (religiously) divergent regions of Kashmir and Jammu. The BJP had bagged 25 seats in the Hindu-dominated region of Jammu in the last elections, and the PDP had won 28 constituencies in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley and some Muslim areas of the Jammu region. “I would not contribute to further division of the state on communal lines,” he told me last year, while the negotiations were still on.
Mehbooba is keeping her cards close to her chest
He chose to go against the popular sentiment in Kashmir by joining hands with BJP and open up the doors of the Muslim valley to BJP’s fountainhead RSS, an extreme right-wing Hindu group. Then, he went the extra mile by praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying he was “not at all a communal person like that”.
Modi is seen as complacent in the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in the Gujarat riots of 2002. In Kashmir, Mufti Sayeed’s certification would not go well with the people. But he stood his ground. He told the people that the coalition – which was supposed to follow an agreement called The Agenda of the Alliance – would deliver on the promises made during the elections.
But there was little movement forward in the ten months of the alliance’s rule. Kashmir saw devastating floods in September 2014, but the Modi government dithered on a compensation package until November 2015 and when it came it did not match the losses people had suffered. The focus was on two issues – a package for Kashmiri Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus who had left the valley in the 1990s), and the repatriation of refugees who had gone to Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
The BJP showed little respect for the agenda document, which a PDP leader Naeem Akhtar had termed “sacrosanct”. In fact, it has tried to do everything possible to make the state government uncomfortable. BJP functionaries went to various courts to challenge Article 35A of the Indian constitution that protects Jammu and Kashmir’s special identity within India, and the separate state flag. They did not stop making controversial statements regarding the Article 370 either.
With this baggage, Mehbooba Mufti, who is expected to step into her father’s shoes, faces a serious dilemma. She was always her father’s daughter, accompanying him everywhere. She joined politics in 1996 just to please him. A lawyer by profession, Mehbooba ran from the Bijbehara assembly segment in South Kashmir as a Congress candidate when her father – who had returned to his parent party – could not find candidates because of the militancy in Kashmir. Her mother Gulshan Begum became a contestant from Pahalgam.
Mehbooba won by striking a chord with wailing mothers as she empathized with the families of the victims of violence. In 1999, she resigned after she and her father decided to launch their own political outfit – the PDP.
Mehbooba’s “soft-separatism” and disenchantment with the National Conference – the traditional political power in Jammu and Kashmir – won the party a stunning 16 MLAs in the 87-member house in 2002, landing it in the government in alliance with the Congress.
Insiders say she was restless when her party was in power, because she was more comfortable being a vocal opposition. That is perhaps the reason she was against the alliance with the BJP. But because of her father, she did not say anything. She even made a public appearance with BJP president Amit Shah to announce the “uneasy handshake”.
She joined politics in 1996 just to please her father
Today, alone in deciding the future of the alliance, her path is not easy. She has made history by declining to succeed her father right away. When Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah died on September 8, 1982, the baton was passed on to his son Farooq Abdullah the same evening. Rajiv Gandhi also succeeded her mother as Prime Minister of India the day she died, on October 31, 1984. Despite knowing that she is the natural successor to her father’s post, and disregarding the political conspiracies thriving around her, she said she would not take oath because she is mourning. She asked her father’s staff to report back to the government, and sent back the Chief Minister’s cavalcade. “She did not show any urgency and is taking her time to decide,” it was said.
This time-taking has made the BJP nervous. Its position in Jammu has weakened since it became part of the ruling alliance, and it cannot afford to be out of power. Although a new alliance between the PDP, the Congress and some independents is possible, analysts say it would be a fragile coalition given the state’s dependency on the center. Jammu and Kashmir is unlike any other state in India, and all the organs of the state have their own stakes in it.
Being in power is a compulsion for both the parties
Even though the PDP has hinted at continuing the alliance, Mehbooba is keeping her cards close to her chest. The party’s core committee has authorized her to make the decision, and she has made a significant comment saying she believes in her father’s decisions. “I will take my own time. The Agenda of the Alliance is there but I will make sure that I am able to fulfil Mufti Sahab’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.”
Mehbooba is in a difficult situation. She does not want to prove her father wrong, but the fact that he was “not treated well” by Prime Minister Modi and the BJP in the last 10 months will also bother her. When the PDP organized a huge public meeting for Modi in Srinagar on November 7, he publicly snubbed Mufti Sayeed by saying that he did not need his advice on Pakistan. A strong advocate of reconciliation with Islamabad, Mehbooba’s father had repeatedly pleaded to the prime minister in his speech that it was important to mend fences with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the state is in its seventh Governor’s Rule since 1947. There are fears that if will be another long one, but being in power is a compulsion for both the PDP and the BJP – fast losing grounds in their own constituencies.
The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of