January 7, 9 am: Kashmir’s ruling PDP announces the death of its 80-year-old patron and state chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at the AIIMS in Delhi. Condolences pour in from leaders of all political hues, from across India. Among them are the Mufti’s critics, like pro-Pakistan ideologue Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Cut to 11 am: The government announces seven days’ mourning. Just an hour later, Kavinder Gupta, the Speaker of the state assembly, leisurely inaugurates showrooms in Jammu and poses for photos.
And at 7 pm: Health minister Lal Singh, Gupta’s colleague from the BJP, the PDP’s partner in government, is seen giving smiling poses with his friends minutes after the Mufti is buried in his native Bijbehara, in south Kashmir. And a day later, there are reports of the BJP eyeing more berths in the cabinet.
These incidents are an indication of the audacious political risk the Mufti had taken some 10 months ago by forging an alliance with the saffron party, whose ministers seem unaffected by his death. In his second stint as chief minister, the Mufti was a pale shadow of himself, but to his credit, the meeting of “the north and south poles”, as he described it, largely worked despite huge difficulties and challenges. Veteran journalist Mohammad Sayeed Malik, the Mufti’s close friend of over 40 years, says the Mufti thought the alliance with the BJP—tenuous though it might be—was in the larger interest of Kashmir and its people. “For the Mufti, it was not at all appropriate to ignore the dynamics of Kashmir politics,” says Malik.
Even critics of the Mufti admire some of his people-friendly measures. Syed Shakeel Qalander, former president of the Federation Chamber of Industries, Kashmir, says history will record Mufti as an “Indian by conviction”, one who was a “great asset for India in Kashmir”. But, he says, it took Delhi more than six decades to cultivate such an asset. “At the same time,” says Qalander, “Mufti was at the vanguard of cordial ties between India and Pakistan. He was eager to start cross-LoC trade as a sign of everlasting peace in the region. He was convinced that India wouldn’t leave Kashmir, so he wanted to rebuild Kashmir and help people live happily.”
Now, when the Mufti is not around, there is little doubt that the volatile state—particularly Kashmir Valley, where the mood forever rests on a razor’s edge—is once again in political uncertainty. Three things explain this. Firstly, there are speculations galore that Mehbooba Mufti, the PDP president and her father’s anointed heiress, may anytime divorce from the BJP. The 56-year-old Mehbooba is an impulsive politician, given to rabble-rousing, and she is conscious of the fact that her party’s alliance with the BJP has brought it nothing but disgrace and unpopularity in the Valley. In fact, there’s no dearth of voices in the party seeking an end to the alliance they privately confess is “unholy”. It’s also no secret that Mehbooba had opposed her father when he decided to partner with the BJP, which swept the Hindu-dominated Jammu in the 2014 state elections.
Mehbooba had launched a vitriolic pre-poll campaign against the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She had also ruled out a post-poll alliance with the BJP, saying “bringing together two divergent forces to share power will not only discredit democracy in Jammu and Kashmir but also have a negative impact on the state”. Later, when the elections threw up a fractured mandate—the PDP emerged as the single largest party, with 28 seats, followed by the BJP with 25, in the 87-member state assembly—Mehbooba and her party colleagues were struggling for words to justify their alliance.
Again, it was the temperamental Mehbooba, not her father, who withdrew her party’s support to the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led coalition government in 2008 in the wake of the Amarnath agitation. Now, in the aftermath of the Mufti’s death, Congress leaders—including Sonia Gandhi, Ambika Soni and Azad—have made a beeline for her residence as they are conscious of Mehbooba’s dislike of the BJP. The Congress has also dropped broad hints that it was open to extending support to the PDP if the latter ends its alliance with the BJP. As Pradesh Congress Committee president G.A. Mir put it, “If any differences crop up between the PDP and the BJP over government formation, then our doors are not far.” In case the PDP decides to go with the Congress (which has 12 seats), it wouldn’t be a big deal to find four more MLAs to reach the figure of 44 to form the government. Independent MLA Engineer Rashid says that if the PDP divorces its coalition partner, the National Conference, Congress and independents are ready to support it to form the next government. In that scenario, the Congress would have the last laugh, given that the PDP had, with contempt, turned down its unconditional support after the election results were out.
Analysts say that even if Mehbooba decides to stay put in the coalition ship and take over as chief minister—she will be the first woman in Jammu and Kashmir to assume that job—it would be a challenge for her to sail through the next five years. (The Jammu and Kashmir assembly has a six-year term.) She would have a full plate with a difficult partner at the other end adding to her miseries. There remain huge contradictions between the two parties, particularly on the Kashmir dispute and relations with Pakistan. Gul Mohammad Wani, a political science teacher at the University of Kashmir, says, “All eyes would be on how she transforms things on the ground without annoying the coalition partner and her own constituency.” He argues that Mehbooba has to take the BJP along to act as a catalyst of transformation. Mehbooba may be credited with creating the PDP as an alternative to the 75-year-old National Conference in just 17 years, but she lacks administrative acumen. Rekha Chowdhary, a politicial commentator from Jammu, says that Mehbooba is the aggressively pro-Kashmir face of her party, but she would have to balance the expectations in Kashmir with the need to take the BJP and the Jammu region along. “This is where she and the state, most probably, are going to miss the experience and wisdom of Mufti Sayeed,” says Chowdhary. Indeed, the complex politics of Jammu versus Kashmir explains how the late Mufti had deftly handled the situation. Be it the release and rearrest of separatist leader Masarat Alam, the debate on Article 370, the ban on the sale of beef in the state, and hoisting the state flag along with the tricolor, the Mufti had tackled these thorny issues wisely.
Should the PDP-BJP coalition survive with Mehbooba at the helm, says the Mufti’s close friend and political commentator M.L. Kotru, she will have to outmanoeuvre these elements using some of the skills she has inherited from her father and political mentor. Kotru says that the Mufti was working to eventually persuade Modi to provide him with a chance “to change the game again”, as he did in his first stint as chief minister in 2003, when prime minister A.B. Vajpayee had extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan during a rally in Srinagar. Also, Mehbooba in all probability is aware that her father’s government couldn’t deliver on the pre-poll promise of the rehabilitation of the 2014 flood victims of Kashmir. In fact, the PDP had argued that one of the main reasons for going with the BJP was because the latter was in power in Delhi. “If we go with the Congress or the National Conference, can we solve the issues which are in the domain of the central government?” the Mufti’s close aide Naeem Akhtar had argued. “Rehabilitation of flood victims needs Rs 50,000 crore. Can we get it if we go with the National Conference or the Congress? We won’t make any compromise with the interests of the people at any cost.” But to the PDP’s ill luck, there was just Rs 8,000 crore for the flood-hit in the Rs 80,000 crore package announced by Modi when he visited Srinagar in November last year. “Unfortunately,” says Wani, “Jammu and Kashmir has not seen any significant leaps on account of development, governance etc.”
On the other hand, reports from Jammu suggest that the BJP may not join the government with the PDP unless the latter agrees to have chief ministers in rotation, similar to the 2002 power-sharing formula between the PDP and the Congress. There is some truth in these reports. Muzaffar Hussain Beigh, a founder member of the PDP and former deputy CM, says the BJP can’t change the rules at this point and seek more cabinet portfolios or the CM’s post in rotation. “The BJP needs to stick to whatever it had agreed upon,” he says. For the record, the BJP says it wants the coalition to proceed from where they left. “I hope things will continue to function smoothly between the BJP and the PDP, as they have been during the 10-month tenure of the alliance,” says senior BJP leader Nirmal Singh, who was deputy CM in the Mufti-led government.
The second reason for political uncertainty, and major worry for any new government in the state, is the new phase of militancy in the Valley, which is led by young and educated boys. When the PDP decided to join hands with the BJP, many Kashmir-watchers had predicted that the development, unprecedented in the history of Kashmir, would mean that the state is on the cusp of either a political catastrophe or a radical transformation. The PDP was warned that it would end up as a big loser in the risky bargain, which was tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. Badri Raina, a respected political commentator, had written the obituary of the party in these words: “If the PDP allies with the BJP, it might win a battle but would surely lose the war...the BJP of today is not the BJP, but the RSS, and Kashmiri Muslims have strained every nerve and consciously voted to keep it away (the BJP lost its deposit in 35 of the 36 seats it contested in the Valley).” So concerned was the Valley over the BJP breaching the Kashmir citadel that even separatists, for whom elections remain a non-issue, had issued appeals to the PDP to stay away from the saffron party. Senior pro-freedom leader and former militant commander Azam Inqalabi had said that since the PDP is a Kashmir-centric party, it should join hands with the National Conference and the Congress. “The Mufti talks about the Kashmir issue and Kashmiriyat, but the BJP cannot accommodate his aspirations,” Inqalabi had told Outlook last January. He had forecast a gloomy future for Kashmir. “Let me tell you, there will be surge in militancy in case the PDP forms government with the BJP. Militants are keenly watching affairs in Kashmir.”
Ten months down the line, these prophecies are coming true. While the PDP’s popularity graph in the Valley has sharply dipped, scores of boys have joined militant outfits like the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba in last one year. And if the reports are to be believed, many more young, educated and tech-savvy boys are waiting to be enlisted. Incidentally, almost all of the recruitment is taking place in the PDP’s bastion—south Kashmir. Last month, when three militants from the Mufti’s hometown Bijbehara were killed in encounter with the army, the angry protesters attacked the Mufti’s ancestral house and later raised Pakistani flags on its rooftop. Just a year ago, the town had overwhelmingly voted for the Mufti.
There’s so much venom against the PDP that just 700-1,000 people, mostly from the government and political class, participated in the Mufti’s funeral in Bijbehara. Contrast this with the funeral of LeT’s Pakistani commander Abu Qasim in southern Kulgam town three months ago. More than 30,000 people, according to police sources, joined the militant’s funeral after clashing with the army over the custody of his body; the imam who led the funeral prayers for Abu Qasim was later arrested and sent to a Jammu jail, further angering locals. Pulwama town, another PDP bastion in south Kashmir, is observing a complete shutdown for the past fortnight as the police have disallowed a memorial at a park for the Pakistani militants slain in encounters in the district during last year. A day after the Mufti died, photos comparing his funeral with that of Abu Qasim went viral on social networking sites, with young Kashmiris heaping abuses on the Muftis for allying with the BJP. As journalist Zulfikar Majid told Outlook, “Imagine if the National Conference, not the PDP, had allied with the BJP and the Mufti had died as an opposition leader—a sea of people would have come out on the streets to mourn his death. It would have brought back memories of Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral in 1982, in which nearly one million mourners took part.”
The third reason for the apparent political uncertainty is the growing factionalism and schism within the PDP. Beigh and Tariq Karra, his fellow MP and another founding member of the PDP, are virtually on the warpath since March 2015, when the government was formed. The duo has appeared in the media, on almost a daily basis, seeking an end to the alliance with the BJP. Incidentally, on the third day of the Mufti’s death, while Mehbooba was grieving inside her residence in Srinagar, Karra was giving an interview on the lawns of the house. He told The Telegraph that the coalition with the BJP was antithetical and unnatural. “This is a decisive moment and I think a good time for a rethink. We have opposed the RSS agenda all along, and now I feel we have become its conduits. What I am saying is not only political, it is the voice of our conscience. The PDP was not formed to partner the BJP and the RSS, and I can tell you that eventually, our conscience will win,” he said. While Beigh and Karra may be treated as outcasts in the PDP, there are senior ministers in the party, like Haseeb Drabu, Naeem Akthar, Altaf Bukhari and Basharat Bukhari, who seldom see eye to eye. Credit must go to the Mufti that, despite all these divisions, he had largely managed to keep his flock together. But now Mehbooba faces the serious challenge of preventing a possible split in her party.
For Mehbooba, this is, indeed, the toughest time of her political career. As Afaaq Sayeed, a businessman and political analyst, put it, “Mehbooba faces a double dilemma. If she breaks the alliance with the BJP at this juncture, it would send a clear message that her father was an opportunist, a power-hungry man who went into an alliance with the communal RSS for the CM’s chair.” The situation could also lead to fresh elections if the alliance with the Congress does not materialise; in that case, it would be the PDP’s loss, given the rising rage in the Valley. “But if she chooses to remain in coalition with the BJP, Mehbooba would lose her party’s base,” Sayeed adds. So the Mufti’s death has brought Kashmir to a crossroads again. All eyes are on Mehbooba. Will she be able to salvage her father’s legacy?
By Showkat A. Motta in Srinagar