Mehbooba Mufti takes over Jammu & Kashmir reins today

How she responds and takes along the PDP-BJP govt will determine future of J&K’s electoral politics

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | New Delhi | Published: April 4, 2016 2:05:02 am
mehbooba mufti, jammu and kashmir, mehbooba mufti swearing in ceremony, mehbooba oath ceremony, pdp, bjp, pdp bjp alliance, jammu and kashmir news, india news, latest news PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said that she doesn’t want to talk about the challenges she is going to face as a CM, or her plans ahead for her government and her party.

At 57, Mehbooba Mufti would be the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Although her elevation to J&K’s top job, succeeding her late father and political mentor Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was seen as an “expected progression” in Peoples Democratic Party, this new phase of her political life comes with difficult challenges. She heads an alliance with the BJP in more difficult circumstances than the PDP-BJP coalition government formed by her late father early last year.

“I don’t think gender has anything to do with your capability to govern,” Mehbooba told The Indian Express soon after flying to Jammu, where she takes oath of office on Monday. “When I contested my first election (in 1996) and went around campaigning, I never felt I was looked at as a woman politician. The common people were not surprised; they never made me feel that I was a woman politician contesting an election.”

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This, she said, has always been the case. “I think there is competition in politics but I don’t think gender is an issue. And I don’t think it is anything to do with chief ministership,” she said. “People will judge you by your administrative acumen, not gender.”

Talking about her father, and her mentor, Mehbooba said, “I have been by his side from 1989. My day would start by checking on him and I would end my day by talking to him.”

As a toddler, Mehbooba, the eldest of Mufti’s four children, would tag along her maternal aunt to a school in Nowpora in Srinagar city before being enrolled in Presentation Convent. She went to Women’s College — first in Srinagar and in Jammu — before studying LLB in Kashmir University. In 1990, she worked as executive officer in Bombay Mercantile Bank in Daryaganj (Delhi) for a year. Around 1994, she joined East West Airlines as an administrative officer in Delhi. This job, too, lasted for a year. Mehbooba has been a single parent — both her daughters are in their 20s — since her divorce.

Mehbooba said that she doesn’t want to talk about the challenges she is going to face as a CM, or her plans ahead for her government and her party. “This isn’t the time,” she said. Her challenges, though, are too visible. She takes over the reins of the state at a time when her party is politically in its weakest phase ever.

But how will she reinvent herself now when she is no longer under the protective shadow of her father? Will she try to change or stay the course? It is clear that PDP doesn’t have any room for playing its soft separatist politics while in coalition with the BJP. Will Mehbooba accept it and try to reconfigure the politics of her party or will she wait for a sensational exit from this “inconvenient” alliance? There is no doubt that PDP’s popularity in its own stronghold has been massively hit because of the alliance with BJP. Unlike Mufti, Mehbooba has always played popular politics. How she responds to this challenge will determine the future of not only this coalition government but also electoral politics in the state.

Once Mehbooba takes over as CM, she would be a leader of the entire coalition. Can she withstand the pressures from BJP? Mufti’s aura as a senior politician helped keep BJP’s flock in the state in check. How will Mehbooba manage that? Even as BJP and PDP are in a coalition, the communal divide within J&K is at its peak — it seems the coalition has left Jammu entirely to BJP while it is trying to battle a resurgent separatist sentiment in Kashmir.

Mehbooba has no experience in governance. She has never been part of the government at any level and once she takes over as CM, will her inexperience hinder her work? Mufti was always trusted in Delhi. A former Union Home Minister, he had personal rapport with most top political players of the country, as also with senior bureaucrats in both civil and security administrations. Mehbooba has to build on being Mufti’s daughter in Delhi.

Although the dip in PDP’s popularity began with Mufti’s decision to stitch a coalition with BJP last January, the party went into another phase of uncharted territory after his death this January. Mehbooba’s decision not to take over immediately, and instead seek assurances from the ruling BJP at the Centre on the coalition partners’ “agenda of alliance”, also didn’t go as per her plan. Instead of providing a “helping hand” to Mehbooba as Mufti’s successor on the CM’s chair and head of the coalition in J&K, BJP decided to play hard ball and refused to give her any “political cushion” to begin her new innings.

In fact, her comment admitting that the alliance with BJP was unpopular for her party had a reverse impact and BJP literally forced her to take the job on their terms. While Mehbooba was waiting for the Centre to announce “Confidence Building Measures” to help her make the transition from PDP president to CM of the coalition, dissension was carefully encouraged within her party. Altaf Bukhari, PWD Minister in Mufti’s cabinet, sources say, told her that if she wasn’t interested in the top job she should let another PDP leader take over, but she should not break the alliance because “party legislators are averse to go for another election at this juncture”.

Although MLAs didn’t publicly revolt, there was massive pressure on Mehbooba. There were also reports that a group of MLAs were being encouraged to look for ways to elect another legislative party leader if Mehbooba wanted to break the alliance. This way, sources said, the stringent provisions of J&K’s anti-defection law would be avoided. Finally, Mehbooba had to agree to an arrangement which puts her in a much weaker position than even when her late father formed the coalition.

Mehbooba Mufti hasn’t just lost her father and mentor, she is faced with a mufti-pronged challenge on both political as well as administrative front. But unlike other second generation politicians in political dynasties, Mehbooba’s rise wasn’t exclusively scripted by her father. She joined politics “accidentally” in 1996 when her father, then spearheading the Congress’s electoral battle in Kashmir, couldn’t find candidates for the Assembly polls. Mufti got his wife, his two brother-in-laws and daughter to contest. Mehbooba, a law graduate, contested from her family’s native Bijbehara. She won — only one of two Congress candidates to win from Kashmir.

Mehbooba was an active legislator, and when Mufti decided to part ways with Congress and form a regional party, Mehbooba was the main architect of the experiment in which PDP literally appropriated the space of between the integrationists and separatists. In fact, from the party symbol — pen and inkpot, taken from the earlier avatar of Hurriyat, Muslim United Front — to the green colour, PDP’s new politics helped bring it to the centre stage of Kashmir’s mainstream political discourse. The party started its electoral innings with a bang in 2002, just three years after inception. When Mufti became the chief minister of a PDP-Congress coalition government in 2002, it was clear that Mehbooba had played an important role in fulfilling his long cherished dream. So as Mehbooba succeeds her father as PDP’s top leader and CM, it won’t be merely the rise of a daughter. She is a politician in her own right.

Mehbooba’s problems lie elsewhere. Those who have followed the trajectory of her political career know that her primary socialisation as a political activist were different from that of her father. She was invested in the “soft separatist” rhetoric of PDP to a level that even the Centre started mistrusting her. Frequent visits to the families of slain militants was, in fact, one of the main aspects of Mehbooba’s public outreach for a long time. For months after PDP aligned with BJP, Mehbooba stayed away from public because as per PDP insiders “she wasn’t comfortable to explain this alliance to the cadre”. When she started re-organising PDP after the alliance, her public speeches were primarily focused on larger resolution of the Kashmir issue, confidence-building measures and the need for a thaw in Indo-Pak relations.

But how will she reinvent herself now when she is no longer under the protective shadow of her father? Will she try to change or stay the course? It is clear that PDP doesn’t have any room for playing its soft separatist politics while they are in coalition with the BJP. Will Mehbooba accept it and try to reconfigure the politics of her party or will she wait for a sensational exit from this “inconvenient” alliance. There is no doubt that PDP’s popularity in its own stronghold has been massively hit because of the alliance with BJP. Unlike Mufti, Mehbooba has always played popular politics. How she responds to this challenge will determine the future of not only this coalition government but also electoral politics in the state.

Although Mehbooba was always an important leader of the PDP, Mufti was the glue that stitched the party together. Unlike the National Conference (NC), PDP is an amalgam of leaders from different political backgrounds who came together under Mufti’s leadership. Can Mehbooba keep the flock together, especially when her authority has already been challenged by leaders within her party?

Once Mehbooba takes over as CM, she would be a leader of the entire coalition. Can she withstand the pressures from BJP? Mufti’s aura as a senior politician kept BJP’s flock in the state in check as well. How will Mehbooba manage that? Even as BJP and PDP are in a coalition, the communal divide within J&K is at its peak. In fact, it seems that the coalition has left Jammu entirely to BJP while it is trying to battle a resurgent separatist sentiment in Kashmir.

Mehbooba has no experience in governance. She has never been part of the government at any level and once she takes over as CM, will her inexperience hinder her work? Mufti was always trusted in Delhi. A former Union Home Minister, he had personal rapport with most top political players of the country, as also with senior bureaucrats in both civil and security administrations. Mehbooba has to build on being Mufti’s daughter in Delhi.

The way Mehbooba was pressured to agree to continue the alliance with BJP and take over as CM, even without “cosmetic” measures by the Centre to help her political posturing, leaves nothing for speculation. Her role now is limited to an administrator alone. There is no scope for Mehbooba’s brand of politics that had helped PDP carve out a space in Kashmir and position it in a popular territory where it had successfully encroached into separatist territory.

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