Once despised as being too close to Delhi, and now the mainstream leader with a soft separatist agenda, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has come a long distance in the Valley. But results and the BJP conundrum may put him back where he started.
In 1983, Jammu and Kashmir saw an election result not dissimilar to the recent polls. Riding a sympathy wave after father Sheikh Abdullah’s death, Farooq Abdullah led the National Conference to a comfortable win. But the poll verdict was divided. While Kashmir almost entirely went to the NC, a resurgent Congress led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed won 24 out of its 26 seats from Jammu.
Closeted inside a hotel in the mountains of Gulmarg where he spent New Year with visiting family members, away from public eye, Mufti must appreciate how the wheel has come full circle. In 1983, it was the Congress that had won from Jammu on a soft saffron plank, seeking to dislodge Kashmir-centric NC from power in “national interest”.
Mufti must also remember how that ended. In a year, he had orchestrated a split not only in the NC but also in the Abdullah family, leading to the fall of the government. The NC’s 13 legislators led by Sheikh’s son-in-law G M Shah had rebelled against Farooq and formed a government with the Congress’s outside support. New Delhi was back in control of Kashmir, and Mufti was its most trusted man in the Valley.
As he sits weighing numbers now, it is another memory that Mufti probably recalls with more fondness. On a spring day of March 13, 2005, when a lot seemed within his reach. As the world looked on, the then chief minister had walked up to a revamped Aman Setu or Peace Bridge in Uri, glistening in the sun, and became the first politician to step onto the 200-ft stretch that connected the two parts of Kashmir since the Line of Control cut through its piers.
This strip of land had been a minefield that no civilian would venture into since 1947. Mufti couldn’t hide his happiness. He had upstaged arch-rival NC in the 2002 elections and there was a new thaw in Indo-Pak relations. It was a new Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
These two anecdotes from Mufti’s 52-year-long political journey summarise the contradictions of this J&K politician. But even as a man once despised in Kashmir for being New Delhi’s man reinvented himself as the leader of a party with a soft separatist agenda — who proposed a porous LoC and even introduction of Pakistani rupee as a joint currency — nobody in the Valley knew who the real Mufti was.
His supporters insisted he had a real change of heart, but his unconvinced detractors never failed to bring up Mufti’s past as part of the Congress.
Now, as he stands at the threshold of power, afraid to step forward but more afraid to step back, Kashmir may finally see the real Mufti when he emerges from that hotel in Gulmarg. With three partners willing to align with him, there are no easy choices. Will it be Kashmir first for him or a stable government? Will he take the risk of alienating Jammu and Delhi, or align with the BJP? Will he hence put behind all his talk of the BJP’s communal politics, and be back where he started as far as his standing in the Valley goes — as a man seeking only electoral gains?
His towering nemesis Sheikh Abdullah who tossed Kashmir into the fold of a secular Nehruvian India had lived to regret it through a long spell of incarceration. Later, he had surrendered his political beliefs for a stint in power in 1974. Now, the Sher-e-Kashmir, as Sheikh was eulogised in Kashmir, has a police contingent guarding his grave from defacement on the Dal Lake banks. Mufti would bear in mind all that too.
Mufti was born in Bijbehara on January 12, 1936, to a family of religious clerics. He went to Srinagar’s Sri Pratap College and subsequently earned a law degree and a post-graduate degree in Arabic from Aligarh Muslim University. After his studies, he started a law practice in Anantnag, which brought him close to Syed Mir Qasim, a Democratic National Conference leader. Soon, Mufti too joined the party led by G M Sadiq.
Formed after the Congress orchestrated a split in the NC and jailed Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, the Democratic National Conference was virtually a Congress proxy and a few years later merged with it, giving the Congress its first real presence in Kashmir. Anyone associated with the Congress was socially boycotted at the time, with Sheikh Abdullah even calling them “gutter worms”.
A believer in J&K’s integration with India, Sadiq soon abolished the post of ‘prime minister’ and ‘Sadre-e-Riyasat’ in the state, designating them chief minister and governor, and introduced a number of Central laws to the state. Mufti along with Syed Mir Qasim was a part of Sadiq’s inner circle.
During the rigged Assembly elections of 1967, Mufti won from Bijbehara uncontested on a Congress ticket and was appointed deputy minister in Sadiq’s government. However, he soon resigned to side with Mir Qasim as he led a revolt against Sadiq for being soft on “anti-national elements (Sheikh Abdullah and his supporters)”. In the new Congress government led by Qasim in 1972, Mufti was made a Cabinet minister.
As Sheikh Abdullah returned to power following the accord between him and Indira Gandhi in 1974, the Congress picked the “aggressive” Mufti, committed to integration with India, to hold his own against him. Mufti was made the state Congress chief.
Mufti would stand steadfast with the Congress even when, for decades, he couldn’t win a single election in Kashmir. A popular slogan at the time went, “Muftian kabar Kasheer-e-Nebar (Mufti’s grave outside of Kashmir)”.
In 1977 came the first turning point in Mufti’s career. That year the Congress withdrew support to Sheikh Abdullah. As the PCC chief, Mufti had a serious chance to become chief minister at 41. However, the Assembly was dissolved on Sheikh Abdullah’s recommendation. That started a bitter rivalry that went way beyond politics.
Mufti’s plans to wrest power from the Abdullah family were again cut short when Rajiv Gandhi formed an alliance with Farooq Abdullah in 1986. Farooq’s reason to join hands with the Congress was incidentally based on a similar argument as given today in support of a PDP-BJP alliance — that to stay in power in Kashmir, the blessings of New Delhi are more essential than even numbers in the Assembly.
An unhappy Mufti was removed as PCC chief, sent to the Rajya Sabha and subsequently made Union tourism minister. Mufti could never reconcile to the alliance, though the two parties contested the Assembly polls together in 1987, and quit his job and the party.
He joined V P Singh, then a rising star against the Congress, won the Lok Sabha polls from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in 1989 as a Janata Dal candidate, and was made the Union home minister in the new government. But just when his career seemed to be taking off, albeit on a new tangent, came another turning point. Militancy erupted in Kashmir and his own daughter Rubaiya was kidnapped by the JKLF. The group managed to get several of its top members released in exchange.
Mufti’s tenure as home minister came to be loathed in Kashmir for it saw the first surge in civilian killings by security forces at the time. In another unpopular move, he sent Jagmohan as governor to the state despite vehement opposition by then CM Farooq, who resigned. In an earlier stint as governor, Jagmohan had sided with Mufti when he orchestrated the fall of the NC government in 1984. Jagmohan couldn’t continue for too long.
Mufti returned to the Congress during P V Narasimha Rao’s time. In the 1996 elections that followed, the party’s situation was so bad in Kashmir that he couldn’t find candidates to contest. So Mufti fielded wife Gulshan, two brothers-in-law as well as daughter Mehbooba, who stood from his home constituency Bijbehara. Only Mehbooba could win. In 1998, he contested the Lok Sabha elections from Anantnag on a Congress ticket and managed a rare victory.
But by then, he had realised that if he had to take on arch-rival NC and become a leader in Kashmir, his politics had to be rooted home.
Meanwhile, the Farooq Abdullah government that had come to power in the 1996 Assembly elections with a two-third majority had become exceedingly unpopular. Kashmir had become a police state and by joining the NDA, the NC had committed a political blunder. Even its autonomy proposal passed by the Assembly had been binned by the then BJP-led Central government.
By the time he resigned from the Congress and launched the PDP in 1999, his friends say Mufti had decided that an outright tone of integration was not the answer in Kashmir. According to a close friend, that was quite a departure for Mufti. “He would never think of Kashmir outside the Indian Union,” says the friend. “He is perhaps among the very few Kashmiri Muslim politicians who are Indian by conviction. There isn’t any other mainstream politician who was abused for his integrationist politics in Kashmir most of his political life.”
Though his opposition was always the NC and Abdullah family in the electoral arena, he squeezed the space for moderate separatists as well. He spoke about restoration of honour and dignity to Kashmiri people. He extended an olive branch to militants calling them “our boys in jungles” instead of “misguided youths”. To take on the NC’s autonomy demand, he framed self-rule. There was a time when the PDP was accused of having a tacit understanding with the Hizbul Mujahideen and Jamat-e-Islami as well.
The transformation was successful, and the man who couldn’t win a seat in Kashmir earlier was soon seen as more loyal to the region than the NC with its flip-flop on serious issues. The name-calling, including tags such as “Mufti whisky” because of the couple of pegs he enjoyed every evening, stopped.
Former separatists, retired bureaucrats and businessmen all flocked to Mufti, turning the PDP into a strong force. In the 15 years since, the party has knocked the NC off the front seat in J&K’s electoral politics — going from 16 seats in the 2002 Assembly elections, to 21 in 2008, and 28 now. The NC has been steadily declining — from a two-third majority of 57 in 1996, to 28 in 2002, 28 again in 2008, and 15 now.
After the 2002 polls, in which the Congress won 20 seats, it naturally leaned towards its former leader for an alliance. If the highest point of that government was the Aman Setu moment, Ghulam Nabi Azad’s takeover as CM from Mufti and the growing tensions over the Amarnath land transfer issue quickly soured relations. As the matter took on sharp communal lines, the positions of the Congress and PDP hardened. The PDP quit the coalition, its identity now affirmed as a party with the core constituency of Kashmir and Muslim regions in Jammu.
The 2008 polls that followed soon after showed the PDP move had been popular, but not enough for it stop the NC from emerging as the single-largest party. Taking advantage of the fresh animosity between the Congress and PDP, the NC forged a coalition with former. It helped that Omar Abdullah had a personal rapport with Rahul Gandhi.
Mufti has waited patiently these past six years since then. As the Omar government fumbled through administrative failures, particularly the floods, he built his base. He tried hard to win over Jammu, ignoring even own partymen’s advice. After the Lok Sabha polls gave the PDP all the three Valley constituencies, he raised his hopes. As the central Congress depleted poll after poll, he dared to believe he had the dominant hand now.
With the results belying those hopes, Mufti knows fate has dealt him a hand from where there may not be second chances. As an ardent bridge player, Mufti knows the value of reading your partner well. If he hasn’t gone with the other alliance options so far, it is only because he is leaning towards a partnership with the BJP and preparing the ground for it. He could suggest that the PDP will influence the policy paradigm in the Modi government and not the other way round. He has an efficient team of spin doctors already working on how to contain the damage control.
But then it was the PDP that had earlier helped end the taboo of aligning with the Congress in Kashmir after Farooq’s coalition with the party in 1987 had turned out to be devastating for the NC. While the NC had to repent joining the NDA, the PDP has virtually emerged unscathed from its former association with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP. The Mufti led PDP-Congress government was very close to the NDA and when Vajpayee addressed a rally in Srinagar in 2003, the PDP helped arrange it.
As for the PDP’s own Kashmir-centric discourse and self-rule demand, that is now seen directed more towards countering the NC and the separatists than a coherent political ideology.
Mufti has another advantage, of being seen as a clean politician, who hasn’t amassed personal wealth. He owns two houses, including an ancestral home. Of his four children, only Mehbooba, a single parent of two daughters, is in politics and lives with him. Second daughter Masooda is a doctor, married and settled in the US, while Rubaiya is married into a Tamil Muslim business family and lives in Chennai. Mufti’s son Tasaduq is a well-known cinematographer based in Bangalore. Mufti has eight grandchildren.
So, as Mufti weighs numbers, the heaviest is quite another. At 79, age doesn’t allow him to stay in opposition for possibly another six years. At 79, he is also old enough to realise the difficulties of running a government with a hostile Jammu at home and a hostile Centre in Delhi. Eighty isn’t the age for comebacks either, should he take a step wrong.