There is little doubt that Mehbooba Mufti will replace her late father as the next chief minister of the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir. Her top aides have left no room for doubt that her Peoples Democratic Party will form the next state government again in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, despite the temptation and pressure to not do so.
Mehbooba Mufti too has made it clear that she would not negate the “legacy” of her father who had spent two gruelling months to evolve his swan song, the “Agenda of Alliance” with the ideologically opposite BJP.
But why is the first major step that she needs to take independently for government formation proving so hard for her? Mehbooba Mufti is aware that her challenges don’t only come from the BJP and the Abdullahs of the National Conference but more significantly from within her own party.
On Sunday, the first PDP meeting she addressed after Mufti Sayeed’s death nearly two weeks earlier revealed her concerns and dilemmas. Behind the procrastination is not just the thought of the PDP’s future but also the need to ensure that the control and command of the party she has nurtured remains within the Mufti family.
Reuniting the family
Arguably the shrewdest of all pro-India politicians of Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed died at his most unpopular. The party’s support base has thinned since the late patriarch allied with the Hindu nationalist BJP in March last year.
Although she never made even an oblique reference to it, Mehbooba Mufti was unhappy about the alliance. As were some stalwarts in her party. One of them, Tariq Hameed Karra, has repeatedly made his displeasure public. After Sunday’s party meeting, he said his silence should not be read as agreeing with the PDP’s alliance with the BJP.
Mehbooba Mufti’s challenge now is to keep her party together while staying on the path her father charted in the end and she secretly disagreed with. Earlier, all loyalty in the PDP centred around Sayeed. Now she is seeking to become the unchallenged centre herself.
The most extraordinary thing Mehbooba Mufti managed on Sunday is the presence of her brother, successful Bollywood cinematographer Tasaduq Hussain, in the party meeting. This was a clear signal that after she takes on the mantle of chief minister there will be a male family member on watch inside the party. Top members in the PDP say that Sartaj Madni, her maternal uncle, will be made the president of the party as Mehbooba Mufti makes her first foray into administering the complex state.
Hussain, according to a family confidante, was estranged from his father and sister Mehbooba Mufti ever since his other sister Rubaya Sayeed was kidnapped by militants of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front way back in 1990, when Mufit Sayeed was the union home minister. Hussain had further “drifted away” since Mehbooba Mufti jumped into mainstream politics in the process of the making of the PDP.
“It is a masterstroke that Mehbooba has managed to bring her brother back now not just into the family but also into the PDP fold,” the family source said. “If she can bring the family together she can keep the party intact at a difficult time like this.”
The PDP has already christened the “Agenda of Alliance” as a “sacred document” for the party. But since no element of the agreed agenda was substantially fulfilled while Mufti Sayeed was there, party insiders say, Mehbooba Mufti wants the BJP to agree to open some sustained engagement – even if only symbolic – with separatists along with something else that will resonate with people in the Kashmir valley, the core of her party’s vote bank.
Frequent and unscheduled electricity outages in Kashmir have riled up the region’s residents for a long time. Mufti Sayeed, during his first tenure as chief minister between 2002 and 2005, had managed to rationalise it. This was one of the major factors for his popularity then.
So, a significant part of the PDP agenda has been the demand of return of some power projects from the hydropower giant NHPC to the state government. A senior PDP member says handing over at least one of the many NHPC-run and owned power projects to the government headed by Mehbooba Mufti will allow her to gain instant popularity in an energy-starved state. What makes her hopeful about realising it is that it also gives the BJP an opportunity to appear benevolent to the Kashmir valley in an “instantly tangible manner”.
In the eyes of many in the PDP, this would make Prime Minister Narendra Modi resemble Vajpayee somewhat. And for the PDP, such “benevolence” from New Delhi could go a long way to justify continuance of the alliance.
“Mehbooba as chief minister needs something that could be very popular in Kashmir,” a person close to the Mufti family said asking to remain anonymous.
Managing many demands
In order to avoid a fresh election the BJP may be willing to give in, according to the source, and it also wouldn’t like to make Mehbooba Mufti a martyr in Kashmir by denying her a relatively comfortable transition to power.
The BJP is also aware that the Abdullahs are egging Mehbooba Mufti to stay the “unpopular path” in order to improve their chances of regaining pre-eminence in the state whenever the next election is held.
In Kashmir, electoral politics has always been hostage to give and take between Srinagar and New Delhi. Mehbooba Mufti has inherited that politics and learnt the ropes from her father, the man who had been at the centre stage of this political trade for over five decades.
“Now there is no one to handhold Mehbooba when she is alone at the top on this treacherous political landscape,” said a retired bureaucrat who worked with Mufti for years. “So she has to craft her own way, a Mufti trademark politics where symbolism means more than anything else”
Mehbooba Mufti’s conduct after her mentor’s death has also revealed that she is going to have her own inner circle of confidants who may not enjoy a “cozy relationship with BJP while also calling shots inside the PDP”.
“You see she is perhaps already on her way in that respect,” the bureaucrat said.
So, at the centre of the delay in government formation in Jammu and Kashmir is Mehbooba Mufti’s acute desire to secure her party, be seen as someone as astute as her father and yet appear concerned about and friendly to people in the Kashmir valley. And above all this, not appear antagonistic to New Delhi.