Mehbooba’s date with destiny

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56 year old Mehbooba Mufti is being crowned as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir but her father, the mentor, ex-Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed is no more. How she would have wanted him to be by her side but destiny had something else in store.

She may drop a tear or two while reading the oath of office and secrecy. She may speak a word or two about how she was missing her father. It is an open secret that Mufti wanted Mehbooba to be crowned as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a wish which none fulfilled. They wanted him, the old guard to continue till last breath. And Mufti obeyed.

Power shift would have been much smoother had the Mufti remained alive to facilitate it.  However, after his demise in All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), BJP-led NDA had no option but to let Mehbooba Mufti realise her father’s dream of becoming the first female Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a state famous for being graveyard of reputations. Mehbooba initially hesitated to take over and hence, delayed even holding talks with BJP directly.

Though ‘interlocutors’, Prof. Amitabh Mattoo, ex-Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu and Ram Madhav worked behind the closed doors to keep the alliance intact. They were ably supported by ex-Education Minister Nayeem Akhtar, who handled the media with expertise, ensuring that not a wrong word was spoken during the two months of separation.

It was ensured that neither PM Narendra Modi nor his frontman and President of BJP Amit Shah get annoyed with anything spoken by some position holder in the party. And even if need arises, criticise the alliance obliquely; make a confused statement and then, issue no clarification.

This worked well and the alliance remained intact. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley did his best to convince the PDP President Mehbooba Mufti that centre was standing solidly behind her and economic package would not be an issue. “We are thinking of increasing the package if need arises. We won’t leave J&K complaining,” is what Jaitley said.

However, PDP kept reiterating that centre must take some Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) so that the process of government formation in the state is speeded up. BJP put the foot down and told PDP straightway either form the government or let the Governor do all the talking. PDP was clearly told to elect Mehbooba Mufti as leader of the legislative party and go ahead with the swearing-in ceremony. No new concessions or conditions, was the response of BJP.

And finally, Mehbooba Mufti obeyed. She is now being sworn-in as 13th Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.  No one can say that the 56 year old Mehbooba will have an easy time as heading a coalition government with the BJP will have its own problems even though her late father, a consummate politician, was able to manage the inherent contradictions in such an unnatural coalition. Mehbooba’s ascendancy would provide a continuity of Mufti’s programmes.

In fact she was the power behind the throne as she was fully involved in implementing the PDP’s policies and programmes since inception. She has shunned power despite being twice elected to Parliament and the assembly but has never been in the government as a minister. She has enough political acumen, and this will come to her help when she takes over.

It must be admitted that Mehbooba has earned her place in Jammu and Kashmir politics. Those who know her will vouch for her capability, determination and courage. After all it was her hard work which made the PDP take root in the state since its inception in 1999.  She benefited from her father’s experience and political sagacity.  He had promoted her, guided her and supported her throughout and Mehbooba also had been a worthy pupil.

When politicians were afraid to move freely even in secure pockets of Srinagar, Mehbooba fearlessly travelled to the interiors of the valley. She was successful in enlisting the electoral support of the valley’s separatist constituency. The PDP has grown into a formidable political force and went from 16 seats in 2002 to 21 in 2008. It has now grown to become the single largest party with 28 seats.  The party ruled from 2002 to 2005 with the Congress and is now with the BJP.

Secondly, since Mufti’s death, Mehbooba has kept coalition partner BJP on tenterhooks and it became a matter of suspense when Congress President Sonia Gandhi landed up in Srinagar to offer condolences; her presence gave credence to rumours that the Congress was ready to support her in case she severed connections with the BJP.

All talks about a relook at the possibility of the chief minister’s post becoming rotational has been put aside as the BJP would not like to give up power.  Also, once the BJP raises this, Mehbooba will promptly look for other options. After all it is for the first time that the BJP has come to rule the state even if as a junior partner.

Thirdly from the PDP’s point of view, Mehbooba is the best bet under the circumstances.  The party has to fill the void caused by the Mufti’s death and she is perhaps the best placed to remain in power. Right now, party needs to remain united for the obvious reasons.   Moreover, women would get a sense of empowerment that Jammu and Kashmir has at last got a woman chief minister.

Mehbooba’s decision not to take over immediately has sent down a positive message. She has her work cut out as she emerges from the shadows of her father.  She has to consolidate her position within her own party and also overcome difficulties which might emerge. Controversial issues have marred the coalition rule. No doubt she will face challenges in building consensus on various issues and will have to adapt her politics to ensure that the coalition stays afloat.  So the real test of her politics will begin Monday afternoon after she takes over as chief minister.

Only time will tell whether she can manage the coalition as deftly as her late father did or whether she will explore other options. She has been known as a good negotiator. It was her phone call to Sonia Gandhi which clinched the issue of PDP-Congress coalition in 2002. Mehbooba will have to balance interests of the people of the Kashmir Valley with those of Jammu region. Also development should be her mantra.

She will also have to find someone to look after the party organisation as so far it was entirely her fiefdom. Perhaps she will hold on to both the posts as many other leaders have done. A lot of people would be watching Mehbooba’s performance; she too would realise that building up a party and running a government are two different things.

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