Despite her refusal, speculations hover around Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) President Mehbooba Mufti, making many to guess whether she would replace her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and become the first ever female Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in the New Year.
Not in the best of health, Chief Minister Mufti is undergoing a medical check up in New Delhi at the time of writing these lines. Earlier, he has dropped many hints to suggest that he would be handing over the reins of power to Mehbooba. Reports state that the 80-year-old CM suffers from the first stage of prostate cancer and, even more worryingly he is losing his characteristic alertness and drive.
"It is a part of democracy. Mehboobaji (as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir) is possible," Mufti said in reply to a question put to him at a presser after the reopening of the Civil Secretariat (the Darbar move) in the State’s winter capital of Jammu.
Mehbooba’s comments in September, when she asked people to pray for Mufti’s health while addressing the party workers in South Kashmir, have fuelled further speculations. During her speech, the PDP president broke down at the mention of her father. “He is not in the best of his health. He has sent greetings to all of you,” she said.
Politicians cutting across party-lines spoke to Policy Pulse, on conditions of anonymity about the possible takeover and what this may entail for both politics and policy in the State.
Her innings so far
Currently a Member of Parliament, Mehbooba is one of the better recognised politicos in the country. She has been active since the 1996 Assembly elections when she won as a Congress candidate from South Kashmir’s Bijbehara. In 1999, her father decided to quit the Congress and form his own party, of which she then became Vice President.
Though PDP’s initial inroads in the State have been credited to Mutfti’s persona (he had served as Union Home Minister in 1989), much of the laudits for the party’s latter success have gone to Mehbooba, because of her dedication and commitment to building the party from the grass roots level.
Mehbooba has proven herself to be a great rabble rouser in the streets and villages. During the peak of militancy in the State in the 1990’s, she was the only mainstream political leader who used to visit the most volatile areas to connect with people. She also made it a point to visit families of alleged militants and separatists, believed to have been killed by security forces.
This outreach, besides establishing her presence among the local populace also brought her the covert support of separatist leaders.
According to former RAW chief A.S Dulat’s book titled Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government suspected Mehbooba of having links with the Hizbul Mujahideen, to the extent of accepting help from the Kashmiri militant group during the 2002 elections.
During the PDP’s journey that went from 16 seats in 2002 to 21 in 2008 to now being Jammu and Kashmir’s single largest party with 28 seats, Mehbooba has been elected to the Parliament twice. However, so far, she has never occupied a Government post and has mainly worked under the guidance of her father.
Things she can cash on
1. The resumption of Indo-Pak talks to discuss the Kashmir issue is definitely something Mehbooba can use to bolster her reputation if she were to become Chief Minister.
In 2005 Mufti Sayeed took much of the credit for starting the cross-LoC trade and bus service during the PDP-Congress Government. It is believed that this helped build a perception of him as a statesman among the masses. Similarly, any forward movement in the dialogue process this time round would present itself as a great opportunity to Mehbooba to firm up her position as a State leader with a national voice.
2. With young politicians in powerful positions becoming a trend in Indian politics, age is another factor that Mehbooba will benefit from.At the age of 56 she is one of the few young politicians from Kashmir recognised across India.
Apart from this, Mehbooba will also be the first female Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir it is the Centre that calls most of the shots, but her elevation is likely to send out a strong signal to women in the State, especially in villages, who may currently feel marginalised in male dominated society. Whether she will carry this further by launching programmes and policies beneficial to women remains to be seen.
3. However, the major factor in Mehbooba's favour remains, ironically, the presence of Mufti himself. The present CM is trying to ensure that some fruits of development become visible on the ground so that no voice of dissent arises if and when he wants to pass on the baton to his daughter. If she takes over with Mufti still watching from the backdrop, potential hecklers will find it harder to protest.
1. In a conflict ridden state like Jammu and Kashmir, politics often tends to take an ugly turn without warning. An example from the recent past is that of PDP’s predecessor or the National Conference.
Omar Abdullah, the “wonder boy” of Indian politics, became the Chief Minister of the State in 2008. Much like Mehbooba, he was seen as representative of youth, a politician who should have taken the State to new heights. Hopes of a solution to the Kashmir dispute underpinned his appointment.
However, soon after Omar took over (his father Farooq Abdullah was CM too), the State witnessed its worst agitation since the outbreak of militancy in the early 1990s.
The uprising in 2010 in which 127 people were killed by security forces left the Government completely paralysed. Omar had to call in the army to control the situation and even hinted that he would resign from the CM’s post (it was only upon the intervention of his father that he changed his mind). Still, anti-incumbency was so strong that the party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2014 Assembly elections.
2. Mehbooba’s politics so far has revolved around her being seen as a challenger. But her biggest challenge now will be to run a coalition Government with the PDP’s arch rival BJP, which many see as an “unholy alliance”. Many political pundits doubt the alliance will sustain through the entire term.
Eleven months since its alliance with BJP, the PDP has been at loggerheads with its partner, with the clear political and ideological divide between the two parties showing time and again.
The abrogation of Article 370, granting permanent citizenship to West Pakistan refugees, a composite township for displaced Kashmiri Pandits and the imposition of a ban on the slaughter of bovines have been just some of the major controversies through which the PDP and BJP have found themselves on opposite sides during their short stint in the Government.
Succumbing to pressure, Mufti has already backtracked from many initiatives she promised before the elections. He was forced to re-arrest separatist leader Masrat Alam after the High Court quashed his detention under the Public Safety Act. His promise to give Hurriyat leaders a fair space to put forth their views was also cast aside by the Centre.
Political analysts believe that stepping down by Mufti in favour of his daughter could put PDP even more on backfoot. This could be more so in view of the faultlines within the party given the functioning of the coalition Government.
“It definitely won’t be a cake walk for Mehbooba. Mufti Sayeed being a seasoned politician was somehow managing to run the coalition despite facing the heat both from within the party as well as from the Centre. Can Mehbooba take that pressure remains to be seen,” says veteran Kashmiri journalist Yousuf Jameel.
3. Even though senior leaders in PDP like Muzaffar Hussain Baig and Tariq Hameed Kara, who were vocal in opposing the alliance with BJP, are said to be in favour of Mehbooba becoming the Chief Minister, the internal bickering vis-a-vis the functioning of the alliance will still be a major challenge. She will have to accommodate dissenting voices from within her party in her dealings with the BJP.
“If we go by the statements of Baig and particularly of Karra they are pitching for the self-rule and autonomy and we know how Centre has overthrown both the demands into the dustbin over the years. So, to keep everyone on board she has to listen to her party leaders and at the same time raise their concern with the centre,” said Jameel.
4. On December 12, in an interview to a national television channel, Mehbooba said she was not willing to take up the job of CM and that the PDP-BJP alliance in the State needed a leader of the stature of her father to run things.
However, there seems to be more than what meets the eye. When the BJP-PDP formed an alliance in February 2015, Mehbooba made sure that her father got the chair of Chief Minister for a full term and not on a rotational basis.
Now,with talk of a change of guard, there are murmurs that BJP might push for a rotational CM, arguing that there are senior leaders in the BJP who are better suited for the post than Mehbooba.
On September 1, BJP National Secretary Ram Madhav while talking to reporters said “there is no question of changing the Chief Minister in the State.”
However, sources in the party have confirmed to Policy Pulse that the discussions have begun among the top brass and the party's core group would take a decision on the issue soon. Among other things this indicates that the BJP may demand rotation as matter of bargain to force a reallocation of portfolios of ministers when it comes to Mehbooba’s take over from her ailing father.
There have also been reports that Mufti has discussed the likely transition with senior BJP leaders, including Ram Madhav, who in turn have given the change a green signal after talking to the Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
To be in the good books of BJP, Mehbooba seems to be making complimentary statements to back the party after having only recently rebuked it for creating an atmosphere of “intolerance” throughout the nation.
In Parliament Mehbooba gave BJP a clean chit by calling India, a Hindu majority country, very tolerant in comparison to Muslims nations such as Pakistan and Syria.
Policies that will matter
Even though both the parties (PDP-BJP) before joining hands came up with an “Agenda of Alliance” to cover economic, religious and political aspirations of people, this has largely remained confined to paper with little implementation on ground. In order to fulfil the expectations of voters, Mehbooba must address the following:
1. After incurring huge economic losses in the devastating floods, the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, saw the highest voter turnout since 1987 in the hope that there would be some succour coming with the new Government.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing Rs 80,000 crore economic package for the revival of the State one year after the floods, making this package count should be Mehbooba’s first priority.
2. To meet economic objectives it is important to create an environment of peace, and stability. Even though, PDP has kept the withdrawal of the controversial law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in their “Agenda of Alliance” but so far no headway has been made on the issue.
3. The return of theNational Hydel Power Corporation (NHPC) projects have been a long pending demand of successive Governments in Jammu and Kashmir.
Also, in the Agenda of Alliance, the PDP-BJP have agreed to explore modalities for the transfer of 390-MW Dulhasti and 4890-MW Uri-I hydro power projects from NHPC to J&K. But with the centre is reluctant to hand over the projects, citing legal and financial constraints. So getting these under State control would be a difficult task for the CM.
4. Having been in the good books of separatists in the past, facilitating sustained dialogue with them irrespective of their ideological views and predilections would be another major initiative that Mehbooba will have to pursue to build her image as a peacemaker.
For long now, Kashmir has needed strong regional leadership to steer it through turbulent times."Hum itihaas ko badalna chahte hain (We want to change history)," Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had proclaimed on March 1, the day he took office as CM. Will his likely successor be able to do so? Only the time to come can tell this and more.