In a state where the turnout at funerals is viewed as a measure of popularity, less than 4,000 people attended Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s funeral at Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium. And when the deceased chief minister’s coffin passed through his hometown Bijbehara, people didn’t even down the shutters of their shops.
Many in the Kashmir Valley, from where Mufti’s PDP won 26 of its 28 seats, have read this as a message that the people have not forgiven the party for joining hands with the BJP. And this message, PDP leaders admit, has been the hurdle in forming a government.
CM-designate Mehbooba Mufti made this clear when she told PDP legislators that her father “took a courageous but unpopular decision” and called for assurances from the BJP for implementation of the “agenda of alliance”, the common minimum programme drafted by the two coalition partners.
“When we tied up with the BJP, the decision did not go down well with our voters,” said Mohammad Shafi, PDP block president for Baramulla. “Our leadership took this risky decision with the hope that the agenda of alliance would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, we got nothing but controversies… In the next elections, we will suffer huge losses in every part of the Valley.”
A party leader explained the compulsions leading to the tie-up: “Kashmir had just gone through floods. We needed funds.; there was no point aligning with the Congress as the Centre could have choked us financially. Then there was the issue of Jammu. It voted totally in favour of BJP and we could not have ignored their aspirations. Mufti Sahib wanted to take all three regions along.”
“It was a very risky decision. Mufti Sahib took it with the hope that he would turn the tide by bringing development and peace. He had a vision and faith in New Delhi,” said Raja Ajaz Ali, PDP coordinator in north Kashmir. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The return of power projects (from the Centre to the state) is a key point in the agenda of alliance. But when Power Minister Piyush Goel, in Srinagar, refused to fulfil this commitment, many PDP leaders felt betrayed.”
The agenda of alliance included dialogue with Pakistan, but PM Narendra Modi’s moves towards friendship with Pakistan were was stalled by the Pathankot attack.
The restricted father
In a speech in Srinagar, Mufti talked about the need to extend the hand of friendship towards Pakistan and address internal dimensions of the Kashmir issue. From the same stage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he doesn’t need anyone’s advice on Kashmir.
“It is difficult for party leaders to forget how Mufti Sahib was snubbed in public by Modi,” said a PDP minister in Mufti’s government. “This dented the image of Mufti Sahib and our party in the Valley and Mehbooba Mufti is conscious of this. That is why she is demanding confidence-building measures.”
Mufti’s coalition of nine months with the BJP contrasts sharply with his earlier regime of three years (2002-05) with the Congress. Then, his three slogans — “Healing touch”, “Goli nahin boli se” (not with gun but with dialogue) and “Battle of ideas” — had been followed by movement: the Centre started a dialogue with Pakistan as well as moderate separatists, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was opened for travel and trade; the police’s Special Operations Group was dissolved.
This time, Mufti started on the same lines and ordered the release of separatist leader Masarat Alam. Within a month, not only was the government forced to rearrest Alam, there was a stricter watch on separatists with the Public Safety Act invoked against more and more separatists and even minor protesters.
“Mufti Sahib was like a caged leader this time. His every move was scrutinised by the Centre, there was interference — he was not the Mufti Sahib we knew,” said a PDP leader. “Mufti Sahib had faith in New Delhi. But probably New Delhi didn’t have faith in him”.
The agenda of alliance said the partners would not rake up controversial issues — such as Article 370, and a separate state flag for Jammu and Kashmir. BJP leader Farooq Khan, in fact, challenged a J&K High Court decision that all constitutional authorities must respect and hoist the state flag. After the Mufti government issued a circular asking constitutional authorities to hoist the state flag on official cars and buildings, it had to retract within 24 hours.
The assertive daughter
If Mufti was seen as New Delhi’s man in Kashmir, the acceptance for him in Kashmir politics was largely due to his daughter’s efforts revolving around soft separatism. After the Muftis formed the PDP in 1999, Mehbooba was key to the rise that took the party to power within three years of its inception. She used a clever mix of mainstream and separatist politics, turning up among mourners for slain militants wearing a green abbaya, voicing her concern on human rights violations and seeking a resolution to the Kashmir issue through dialogue. The party advocated self-rule.
“She is the soul of the party,” said Naeem Akhtar, PDP chief spokesperson.
Over the past nine months, Mehbooba was watching the results of 17 years of hard work slipping away. And Mufti’s funeral sent the signal. “It (the indifference of people) was an indicator how unpopular this government is, rather how unpopular it has become. Suddenly a party that had almost swept the polls in Kashmir just a year ago has become so unpopular just because of allying with the BJP,” said political analyst Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, who heads the political science department at Central University of Kashmir. “This must be on her mind as she thinks about government formation.”
Though Mehbooba might feel it would be a bad decision to go back to the people for votes, she also knows that continuing the coalition with BJP without tangible gains would remain a blot on her party’s credibility. This explains why she is seeking confidence-building measures from the Centre.
“We are even ready for elections if the BJP leadership does not walk the extra mile,” said PDP general secretary Nizam-ud-din Bhat. “It is a known fact that our patron (Mufti), who was a mature and experienced politician with great vision, faced difficulties in the past ten months.”
“I believe that if elections happen, we would still fare better than our rivals,” said the PDP’s Mohammad Ashraf Mir, who defeated outgoing CM Omar Abdullah and became a minister of state. “But,” Mir added, “it would not be true to say that everybody in the party is in favour of elections. So far there has been little or no progress on the issues drafted in the agenda of alliance. We live in a sensitive state and the people are watching our every step.”
Mehbooba’s hard stance is also an effort to create the impression that she can stand up to New Delhi for the people of Kashmir. “The stand taken by Mehboobaji has raised her standing among the masses,” said Ali, the north Kashmir coordinator. “She has declined to take oath unless the Centre announces CBMs. Few leaders would have had the courage to take such a bold decision’’.
The hopeful ally
The BJP is optimistic the government will be formed soon. “It may be the PDP leadership feels there are some shortcomings in implementing the agenda of alliance,” said Abdul Gani Kohli, who was the BJP’s only Muslim minister in Mufti’s cabinet. “The leaderships of the two parties are talking, everyone is hopeful things will be sorted out.”
The delay in government formation may be a concern more for the BJP than for the PDP. The BJP’s image in Jammu, where it won 25 seats, has suffered a dent amid a general perception that it has failed to initiate any development in the region in the absence of generous central funding. If the partners fail to revive their coalition, the BJP too will have to go back to the people, with less optimism than earlier.
“I think this was the first and last chance for us to be in power,” said a BJP leader. “Our legislators are not in favour of elections at this point.”