AFTER two-and-a-half months of political “hide and seek”, Mehbooba Mufti is all set to be the next Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. Sources close to Mehbooba said she has “decided to repose trust in Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” who called her back from Srinagar for a meeting after talks between the two alliance partners had failed.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Mehbooba said, “It was a very good meeting. I am satisfied with the outcome. It won’t be proper to talk publicly about what was discussed. I had raised some questions and I am satisfied with the assurances”.
The PDP leader did not elaborate on whether the BJP had accepted any of her conditions. But she is learnt to have sought a “re-affirmation of its (BJP’s) faith in the agenda of alliance” — a joint roadmap agreed upon by the two parties to forge an alliance last year — by “giving a timetable to fulfill the agreed political and governance programme”.
“Prime Minister Modi has bridged the trust deficit. This is the climax of the story,’’ said a PDP leader who helped facilitate the talks with BJP. But in Kashmir, the overnight change in Mehbooba’s stance was described as an “anti-climax”, with another PDP leader and former minister suggesting that the party chief may have been prompted to revive the alliance after receiving a “honest wake-up call” from within.
“It is an anti-climax because now we don’t even know as to why we didn’t form a government for two-and-a-half months. I had told Mehboobaji clearly that the MLAs don’t want another election and that they will go ahead and form a government, if it comes to that, without her as well. It wasn’t a revolt but an honest wake-up call. I don’t understand why she put the party through such strain, if a 35-minute meeting with the Prime Minister was all that was needed to make us friends with BJP again,” said the leader.
According to sources, it was after several rounds of talks that the decks were cleared for a high-level meeting between Mehbooba and BJP president Amit Shah last Thursday in Delhi.
While Mehbooba had sought tangible assurances from the BJP leadership on the “agenda of alliance” as well as a timeframe for its implementation, sources said Shah agreed on “assurances but not publicly” because “such a move won’t be politically feasible” for his party.
Sources said Shah also insisted they would talk about “concrete measures” only after the PDP-BJP government was in place. A meeting with Prime Minister Modi had been planned as a sequel to the Mehbooba-Shah meeting on Friday. But Mehbooba, sources said, didn’t want to meet Modi until the issues that she had raised were resolved.
Sources close to Mehbooba said that while she was waiting for the Prime Minister to return from Rajasthan, the BJP issued a statement saying they won’t accept any of PDP demands which “was a clear indication that the talks have failed”.
On Saturday morning, Mehbooba took a morning flight to Srinagar where she was facing a challenge on multiple levels. A majority of MLAs were “scared” of a re-election at this point of time and a few former ministers were toying with the idea of replacing Mehbooba as the legislative party chief to pave way for government formation with BJP. The second group was in constant touch with the BJP, said sources.
The situation then took a dramatic turn on Monday when Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the BJP was “committed to the agenda of the alliance”. Mehbooba then received a phone call, inviting her to a “one-to-one” with the Prime Minister, said sources. They added that Governor N N Vohra’s reports to the Centre regarding the ramifications of such a political impasse may have also pushed the two parties forward. Sources said that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who was very close to former CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose death in January led to the current impasse, also helped to get the talks back on track.
Asked about what transpired during the meeting between Mehbooba and Modi, a PDP leader said that “once the Prime Minister gave his word, there was nothing to discuss”. Asked if the Prime Minister offered any specific assurances, the leader said, “We won’t talk about that because even if that was the case, why would we embarrass our partners? We are completely satisfied”.
Mehbooba is now expected to head to Srinagar on Wednesday and convene a legislative party meeting in which she is expected to be elected as leader. The next step, sources reveal, will be government formation.
But while Mehbooba is all set to take over, the political situation that awaits her is more fragile than on January 7 when the leadership mantle passed on to her. She had since raised serious questions about her party’s ten-month-long alliance with BJP and sought tangible assurances from the Centre to fulfill the promises in the agenda for alliance. She had also made it clear that she would not aspire for power just “for the heck of it”.
On January 31, she said: “The alliance with BJP is unpopular. I won’t mind walking alone if I feel the continuance of alliance with the BJP can’t achieve the political and developmental commitments outlined in the agenda of alliance. Going with the BJP is like burning your fingers.”
On February 21, Mehbooba told a party convention: “The CM’s chair…is worth it only if we feel that by sitting on it we can fulfill the dream of Mufti sahib…. you get comfort, if there is peace… and if Jammu and Kashmir becomes a bridge between India and Pakistan.”
And on March 8, she said: “The vehicle runs on two tyres. If the government has to be formed there are some conditions, too, that have to be fulfilled by them.”
A PDP leader said, “Now, her challenge will be to answer the questions she raised in the last two-and-a-half months. She will have to explain what happened in the meeting that made her change her mind. But perhaps, this episode may come as a reality check for her, as well. After all, those of us in mainstream electoral politics in Kashmir know that a lot is dependent on Delhi’s good wishes”.