On March 13, 2005, when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took a few steps on the freshly renovated “Aman Setu”, he was the first politician to step on the 200-ft bridge that connected the two parts of Kashmir in Uri, for the first time since the LoC had split it between India and Pakistan. Mufti couldn’t hide his exhilaration.
After a four decade-long journey in politics, he had for the first time felt that he was close to his ambition. He had already won power in J&K where his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, had defeated the National Conference. A thaw in India-Pak relations had led to the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. He saw this moment as a beginning towards making the LoC meaningless and scripting a new reality where his party’s political agenda — self-rule for J&K within the Indian Union — would temper the sentiment of “azadi”, pave the way for an end to the Kashmir dispute and help him rise from the status of politician to leader.
Eleven years after that sunny spring morning when he stepped on to the peace bridge at the LoC in Uri, there isn’t even a semblance of a resolution of the Kashmir issue, and the LoC continues to cut through the hearts of its people. For years, Mufti’s new politics looked like a departure from his past. But after an alliance with the BJP, the PDP seemed to belie every political position it had taken since its inception in order to return to power. The demand for self-rule, demilitarisation or the aspiration to bring together the divided parts of J&K and make the LoC meaningless — these no longer seemed to be at the centre of its discourse.
Earlier last year, when Mufti went back to the drawing board one last time, every possible decision had a serious political fallout. When he chose to go with the BJP and partner with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to form a coalition government in J&K, it seemed, suddenly, that this decision and its political fallout would not only determine Mufti’s legacy but also his party’s future.
To understand Mufti’s political journey, there is a need to look at what happened after that sunny March morning in 2005. Mufti had carefully positioned his party to be at the centre of a diplomatic thaw between New Delhi and Islamabad, where a beginning often became an end in itself. Within months, the cosmetic nature of the peace effort was out in the open. Mufti was replaced by the Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad as chief minister, and India-Pak relations plummeted again. The PDP’s coalition with the Congress broke on a sour note when Mufti’s party withdrew support after the Amarnath land transfer issue flared in 2008, dividing the state along communal lines. At that time, the PDP had again positioned itself as a Kashmir-centric party and withdrawn from the coalition because it had newly carved out its core constituency in the Kashmir Valley and the Muslim regions in Jammu. The PDP was rewarded for its stance and it improved its tally in polls held four months later. But though the NC had won exactly the same number of seats in 2008 as in 2002, this time the Congress’s decision to choose the Abdullahs as its partner kept the PDP out of power. Mufti’s ambition to replace the NC had hit a Congress roadblock. But he didn’t lose heart.
He knew the changing political scenario would provide him with a chance to win back the Congress. He was aware that it was going to be his last chance to return to the political centrestage in Kashmir. The failures of the Congress-NC coalition on the political and administrative fronts provided him with an opening. The weakening of the Congress after it was routed in the Lok Sabha polls was helpful. He understood that the Congress wouldn’t go with the NC if the PDP managed enough numbers in the assembly. The PDP’s dream run in the 2014 LS election — it won all three Valley constituencies — was seen as proof of the party’s rising electoral fortunes. And when the Omar Abdullah government failed to respond to the floods that devastated the Valley leading to public outrage against the NC-Congress alliance, everything seemed to be going as per Mufti’s script.
Then something unexpected happened. Though the PDP improved its tally in the 2014 assembly polls, it couldn’t manage a simple majority while the Congress was routed in Jammu. And riding on the Modi wave, the BJP had managed to sweep Jammu. Mufti’s answer to why he decided to go with the BJP and shun the PDP’s carefully scripted Kashmir-centric discourse was that it was the only way to keep J&K together. He talked about bringing the north and south poles together, referring to the state’s communal and regional divides. The reason, however, wasn’t that simple. Mufti wanted to get back to the seat of power but he didn’t want a lame duck government where he stayed busy trying to calm Jammu’s Hindu heartland while fighting a hostile Centre. Even earlier, while the NC had to publicly repent joining the NDA and Omar Abdullah had to apologise several times for it, the PDP’s rhetoric cannily sought to project Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a leader above his own party. The Mufti government was very close to the NDA; in fact, when Vajpayee addressed a rally in Srinagar in 2003, his speech had inputs from the PDP.
Mufti’s political trajectory has been different from any mainstream Kashmiri politician. He wasn’t baptised through a stint in separatist politics. He didn’t cross an ideological red line to join electoral politics. He began with the unpopular integrationist politics of the Congress.
For four decades until he left the Congress and launched a regional party in 1999, Mufti and his politics was extremely unpopular in Kashmir. When he joined the Congress more than five decades ago, those associated with the national party would face social boycotts and were publicly ridiculed by Sheikh Abdullah as “gutter worms”. The Congress’s integrationist politics was accused of an agenda to snatch the special status of Kashmir.
For decades, Mufti couldn’t win a single election against the NC in Kashmir. While the Congress was supporting a government formed by 13 rebel NC legislators after the unceremonious fall of the Farooq Abdullah government, a Congress legislator was asked to resign his seat in RS Pora in 1985 so that the then Pradesh Congress chief, Mufti, could win an election and enter the assembly.
In 1999, his shift in strategy worked and Mufti was reborn as one of the most important mainstream political players in Kashmir. A large number of people who were disgruntled with the NC for its flip-flop on serious issues gathered around him. His experience as a vilified opposition to Sheikh Abdullah and his organisational skills helped the party to rope in former separatists, retired bureaucrats and businessmen. In its 16 years of existence, the PDP has taken the NC off the front seat in J&K’s electoral politics. To understand Mufti’s success, look at the PDP’s performance: It won 16 seats in 2002; 21 in 2008; in 2014, it became the largest party in the assembly with 28 seats. Compare this with the Abdullahs: From a two-third majority of 57 in 1996 its tally was 28 in 2002, 28 in 2008 and 15 in 2014.
But this success wasn’t enough. Mufti understood that the PDP’s Kashmir-centric discourse and self-rule demand couldn’t be anything more than rhetoric to help the party defeat the NC in its own game and simultaneously blunt the effectiveness of the separatist agenda. Every mainstream player in Kashmir understands that there is hardly any chance that New Delhi would agree to even discuss such demands of mainstream Kashmiri parties. Mufti wanted Modi to provide him with a chance to change the game again.
He was in the ICU in AIIMS when the Pathankot attack shifted the focus yet again in the India-Pakistan relationship. As she steps into her father’s shoes, Mehbooba will have her plate full.