For Mehbooba, easy part is over

In the latest installment of “will they, won’t they”, it appears they will. Peoples Democratic Party Chief Mehbooba Mufti on Tuesday met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi with regard to the formation of a government in Jammu and Kashmir and emerged from the meeting saying she was “very satisfied”.

On Thursday, the PDP elected Mehbooba Mufti as the head of its legislature party, paving the way for her to become the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. As PDP and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders head to the governor N.N.Vohra’s office on Friday, it is widely anticipated that the alliance between the two parties in Jammu and Kashmir will continue, breaking a stalemate that began when former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed – who helmed an unprecedented tie-up with BJP last year – passed away.

After his death, his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, mulled the wisdom of continuing the alliance with the BJP. The coalition had not been a hit with the people of Kashmir, and the state government’s waning popularity was evident from the thin attendance at Sayeed’s funeral. But after 10 weeks of dithering, the PDP chief seems to have turned a corner. What changed? On the face of it, nothing.

In its second wind, the BJP-PDP coalition will still rest on its contentious agenda, also known as the common minimum programme. Drawn up soon after the Assembly polls of 2014, the document was meant to be a sort of memorandum of understanding between two parties of vastly divergent persuasions – soft separatist PDP and nationalist BJP. It papered over deeper political differences and cobbled together a consensus on economic and developmental issues. But a year later, the consensus had worn thin and the promises had unraveled.

The PDP felt shortchanged and, on many counts, the BJP seemed to abandon the pretence of sticking to the agenda. As Mehbooba Mufti takes oath as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, she will have to get past the many discontents of the common minimum programme. At least three of them meet the eye.

First, one of the main political promises made in the common minimum programme was the implementation of confidence-building measures to “normalise the relationship with Pakistan”. These included greater people-to-people contact across the Line of Control as well as better trade ties and increased civil society interaction.

In reality, last year saw heavy cross-border firing across the Line of Control and casualties on both sides. India-Pakistan ties hit a new low, and each public moment of amity between prime ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif was followed by tragedy. Their meeting at Ufa in Russia in the first half of July last year was followed by a terror attack in Gurdaspur before the end of the month.

Similarly, Modi’s impromptu visit to Lahore at the end of December was followed by the terror attack on the Pathankot air base on January 2. While Mehbooba Mufti made confidence-building measures a condition for continuing with the alliance, such measures seem thin on the ground.

Second, the text of the common minimum programme cited former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his decision to hold talks with separatist leaders of the Hurriyat in the spirit of “insaniyat, Kashmiriyat aur jamhuriyat”. The common minimum programme bravely stated: “Following the same principles the coalition government will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders which will include all political groups irrespective of their ideological views and predilections.”

But quite the opposite happened. House arrests of separatist leaders such as SAS Geelani, of the Hurriyat’s hardline faction, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, of the group’s moderate faction, before any planned protest or potentially sensitive situation are routine now.

But the Centre did not stop there. Twice, in the tenure of the Modi government, bilateral talks with Pakistan have been called off because representatives of the neighboring country decided to meet Hurriyat leaders. The ambitious, wide-ranging engagement of the Vajpayee era seems a remote prospect at this point.

Third, the question of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act remains unresolved. Where the common minimum programme could not hammer out a consensus, it resorted to ambiguity or evasion. Take Article 370, which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir. While the BJP wants it abolished, the PDP wants it instituted permanently.

The common minimum programme delicately says status quo would be maintained. A similar reticence prevails on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The PDP has for long agitated for a rollback of the law. But the common agenda tamely says the coalition would “examine the need for denotifying Disturbed Areas” and based on its findings, the Centre could take a call. It was a climb-down for the PDP.

And, after a year of the coalition, the AFSPA is still firmly in place. The present moment will require a degree of political agility from Mehbooba Mufti. While the BJP has declared that it remains “committed” to the common minimum programme, the PDP has pushed for the time-bound completion of its goals. Indeed, over the last two months and more, Mehbooba Mufti has been anxious to project herself as aligned with the interests of her constituency and discomfited by the BJP – attempting to look like a state leader trying to extract concessions from a disaffected Centre.

But as a chief minister heading a fractious coalition, she will no longer be able to keep a convenient distance. One of the biggest challenges for Mehbooba Mufti will be to restore credibility to common minimum programme, making it acceptable as “governance agenda”.

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