Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death has pushed the PDP into uncharted terrain for the second time in less than a year — the first time it tread cautiously was when it joined hands with the BJP to head a coalition. Sayeed’s daughter and likely successor Mehbooba Mufti faces challenges on several fronts.
Unlike other second-generation leaders of political dynasties, Mehbooba’s rise wasn’t exactly scripted by her father. She joined politics “accidentally” in 1996 when her father, who was then spearheading the Congress electoral battle in Kashmir, couldn’t find candidates to field. Mufti got his wife, two brothers-in-law and his daughter to contest. A law graduate, Mehbooba was fielded from the family home turf of Bijbehara. She was one of the two Congress candidates to win from Kashmir.
When Mufti decided to part ways with the Congress and form a regional party, Mehbooba was the main architect of that new experiment — the PDP appropriated the space between the integrationists and separatists. And when Mufti became Chief Minister of a PDP-Congress coalition in 2002, it was clear that Mehbooba had played an important role in fulfilling his dream. She was acknowledged as a politician in her own right.
But today, Mehbooba’s problems lie elsewhere. Consider these:
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* As a political activist, she was different from her father. She invested in the “soft separatist” rhetoric of the PDP to such a degree that even Delhi began to distrust her. Frequent visits to the families of slain militants was, for long, one of the main features of her public outreach.
And for months after the PDP aligned with the BJP last year, Mehbooba stayed away from the public because, as PDP insiders said, “she wasn’t comfortable explaining this alliance to her cadre”. When she began re-organising her party a few months ago, her public speeches primarily focused on the larger resolution of the Kashmir issue, confidence-building measures and the need for a thaw in Indo-Pak relations.
How does she reinvent herself now that she is no longer under the protective shadow of her father? Will she try to change or stay the course? It is clear that the PDP doesn’t have room for playing soft separatist politics while in a coalition with the BJP. Will Mehbooba accept it and try to reconfigure the politics of her party? Or, will she wait to exit from this “inconvenient” alliance? These questions preoccupy the PDP rank and file, aware that their popularity in their own strongholds has been hit because of the alliance with the BJP.
* Although Mehbooba was always an important leader of the PDP, Mufti was the glue that kept the party together. Unlike the National Conference, the PDP is an amalgam of leaders who have come from different political backgrounds, collecting under Mufti’s leadership. Can Mehbooba keep the PDP flock together? There is dissent within and two top leaders and the party’s Lok Sabha MPs are said to be in the disgruntled lot.
* Once she takes charge as chief minister, Mehbooba will be the leader of the coalition. Will she be able to withstand the pressure from partner BJP? The divide within J&K runs deep — the coalition has left Jammu entirely to the BJP as it battles a resurgent separatist sentiment in Kashmir.