When Sheikh Abdullah was the undisputed leader in Kashmir, only one mainstream politician stood up to him — Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, who passed away at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Thursday morning.
On the electoral turf, however, it was a long time before Mufti could challenge the political might of the National Conference and the Abdullahs. Seen for long as Delhi’s man in Kashmir, Mufti’s turnaround and acceptance in Kashmir politics was largely due to his daughter’s struggles revolving round the soft separatism.
The turnaround came when Mufti and Mehbooba formed their own political party in 1999 after leaving the Congress. In just three years, the new political party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) emerged as a strong challenger to the National Conference and came to power together with Congress. While many in Kashmir say that the PDP was created by the intelligence agencies to divide the Muslim votes in Kashmir, especially after the National Conference secured an absolute majority in the 1996 polls and passed a resolution on autonomy in the state assembly, the soft separatist politics displayed by its leader Mehbooba Mufti was the main reason for its emergence in the valley. Mehbooba won acceptance from people after turning-up among the mourners of slain militants, voicing her concern for human rights violations and for seeking a resolution of Kashmir issue.
In just three years, Mufti was the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a setting he might never have dreamt of. The three years of Mufti’s rule and the simultaneous reconciliatory steps between India and Pakistan popularized Mufti as a leader. The Peoples Democratic Party took the credit for the opening of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road for cross border travel and trade, the biggest Kashmir-centric CBM between India and Pakistan and the disbanding of the J-K Police’s Special Operation Group (SOG), a dreaded counter insurgency force of police. On the developmental front, Mufti’s three years as chief minister were seen as a golden period.
Though many PDP leaders call Mufti’s daughter Mehbooba the “soul of the party”, it was the senior Mufti’s aura that has kept the party together even as there were dissenting voices emerging time and again.
Mufti’s demise thus is a major challenge for his daughter and party president Mehbooba, who is going to be the new chief minister of the state. In the absence of the “inspiration” of her father, the first biggest challenge for Mehbooba would be to keep her flock together. And it would not be an easy job especially as the party’s two stalwarts – parliamentarians Muzaffar Hussain Beig and Tariq Hameed Karra – are rebelling in the open.
For sixteen years since the founding of PDP, Mufti and his daughter did everything right thus taking the PDP’s seat tally for zero to 28 – the party with highest number of seats. But his decision to join hands with BJP to form the coalition government has not gone well with many in Kashmir, who voted him to power to keep the BJP away. This would be another major challenge for Mehbooba. And to arrest the decline of party’s popularity, is she going to have a re-look at the coalition government is to be seen.