There was a brief period of suspense about the future of the PDP-BJP ties when Mehbooba Mufti took the reins of PDP after the demise of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Now she appears to have decided to keep the alliance with the BJP intact. Yet, this has its cost in terms of her image and support-base in the Valley, writes Junaid Kathju
The speculation over Government formation in Jammu Kashmir has finally stopped exactly where it began in January 2015. Despite all odds, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) President Mehbooba Mufti, who is all set to replace her late father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as Chief Minister, is likely to continue her party’s alliance with rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party.
After the demise of Mufti Sayeed, the reluctance of Mehbooba to take oath as the first woman Chief Minister had put Jammu Kashmir under Governor’s rule for seventh time in its history. It had kept everyone, including New Delhi, guessing about whether she would continue with BJP or explore new options like the Congress.
However, after chairing the first marathon meeting of the party’s core group nearly two weeks after Mufti’s death, it became apparent that Mehbooba was keen to continue with the alliance that her father had put in place. The PDP President is reported as saying that the party would continue its alliance with the BJP but she would not rush into the decision on Government formation yet.
“Mufti Sahab did it with conviction and I need some time to do it with conviction,” the sources quoted her as saying. “Before I sit in the chair, I will need to be convinced and have the conviction that Mufti Sahab had. I don’t mind if I get consumed with it for the welfare of the people and also for the essence of the agenda,” she said.
Interestingly, three days before the party meet, Mehbooba also had a meeting with Union Finance Secretary Ratan P Wattal who was close to the late Mufti. Reports suggest that Wattal who is now seen as new point men between New Delhi and Kashmir conveyed Centre’s eagerness to Mehbooba for keeping the alliance intact.
Mehbooba is also preparing ground for her brother Tassaduq Hussain Mufti to make his debut in the political arena of Jammu and Kashmir. As per reports, Tassaduq, a cinematographer in Bollywood, is likely to contest a Lok Sabha seat from Islamabad which is currently his sister’s constituency. He has already attended two core group party meetings after his father’s death.
Why the delay?
In an open letter to Mehbooba, former chief minister and opposition National Conference working president, Omar Abdullah asked Mehbooba what she was waiting for when her party’s alliance with the BJP stands and no fresh negotiations are taking place.
“The people of the State were expecting some announcements but it appears it will be business as usual when the business of Governing resumes. So, why is the State under central rule? What are you waiting for, Mehbooba?” questioned Omar in his letter.
Even though Mehbooba has maintained a studied silence on Government formation, her senior party leaders feel that they were looking for concrete assurances from the Government of India on the issues listed in the “Agenda for Alliance” before taking a final call on the alliance with the BJP.
Senior PDP leader and former Education Minister Naeem Akhtar had told reporters, “We will review the progress on the agenda of alliance we drafted. It was a common vision of the Prime Minister and Mufti sahib. We are reviewing how much of it has been achieved.”
After the 2014 polls threw up a hung assembly, Mufti Sayeed, known for his astute political sense, stitched together the trickiest coalition with BJP after coming up with a much hyped “Agenda for Alliance” to form the Government in the State. However, 11 months down the line, the agreement proved to be the biggest deterrent between the two parties. BJP did not follow the document in spirit and was more interested in applying its own set of agendas like the beef ban, abolition of Article 370, and a composite township for Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu Kashmir.
On the other hand, PDP was forced to backtrack from their decisions. Mufti was compelled to re-arrest the flamboyant Hurriyat leader Masarat Alam Bhat. The octogenarian leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani continued to be kept under house detention. The human rights violations, arrest of youths under Public Safety Act (PSA) saw no reduction. The much awaited economic package from New Delhi too proved to be low on people’s expectations. If that was not enough the fault lines between Kashmir and Jammu became more pronounced than ever.
Even though PDP knew that it was losing significant support in Kashmir, but with Mufti still around the party was hoping that his stature would manage to take the coalition to its logical conclusion. However, after Mufti’s untimely death, Mehbooba got an unwanted opportunity to review her father’s decision before steering the ship forward. The PDP core group has now authorised Mehbooba to take the final call on whether to continue the alliance with BJP or not.
Is it about agenda or alliance?
Analysts say more than loyalty towards the Agenda for alliance, it was a catch-22 situation for PDP to dump BJP and venture out for a new coalition Government.
Firstly, the arithmetic was not adding up for a PDP and Congress coalition. They had to either seek support of the National Conference or of independents to form the Government. In the 87-member State Assembly, the PDP has 27 (one less due to the passing away of Mufti Sayeed). The BJP is the second-largest party with 25 seats. The NC has 15 seats, while the Congress has 12. Independent and others hold seven seats.
Secondly, for Mehbooba to go against the decision of her late father of joining hands with the BJP would amount to admitting that Mufti Sayeed took a wrong decision and that she would be giving a go by to his legacy.
“Mehbooba’s dilemma is understandable. Snapping ties with the BJP would imply that the decision taken by her father before March 2015 was a mistake. This would have put a serious question mark on Sayeed’s acumen and legacy,” said Kashmir based political analyst Gowhar Geelani.
Thirdly, Mehbooba couldn’t have ignored BJP which is at the helm of affairs at the Centre and holds crucial purse strings.
It is an open secret that when it comes to the conflict torn Jammu and Kashmir, it is New Delhi that ultimately calls the shots. So, it becomes more of a compulsion than discretion for any State Government to maintain a cordial relationship with New Delhi to keep the economic corridors open.
Fourthly, and most importantly, there is an anti-incumbency factor. After joining hands with the saffron party, the PDP has lost significant ground in the Valley. Mehbooba who has a huge grass root political experience knows that if she ends the ties with BJP and goes in for a re-election, her party will tend to lose in the present scenario.
“She is well aware of the people’s pulse and knows that if she goes in for re-elections, her party might end up losing. It is a big risk to take, no political party wants to throw itself out of power,” Geelani said.
Is Mehbooba right?
The deep personal loss of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had presented an opportunity for Mehbooba Mufti to take some ground-breaking decisions at a crucial juncture of her political innings on Kashmir’s turf.
It may be remembered that PDP had sought votes from people after making promises that PDP is the only one to defeat the BJP’s over-ambitious Mission 44 plus, or cross the half-way mark in the Assembly, during the 2014 elections. During the election campaign Mehbooba had vociferously pleaded her voters to keep the BJP out. She went on record to say that the people of Kashmir would never side with a divisive force like BJP.
“You have to come out in large numbers to vote and send out a strong message to BJP that the people of Kashmir are not a ‘saleable commodity’,” Mehbooba had said in 2014.
Geelani opines that, “Mehbooba had to take a decision that would have satisfied her people, voters in Kashmir, and also improved the declining image of the PDP in Jammu Kashmir.” Adding further he said, “She should have parted ways with the Hindu nationalist BJP as Mehbooba Mufti, not as the daughter of the late Sayeed. She has missed the bus.”
Kashmir based Journalist, Daanish Bin Nabi said instead of tying up with BJP the option for Mehbooba and PDP was to wait for six months and then go in for re-election.
“By waiting for six months, Mehbooba could sell two things to the people of the State. She could have claimed that she did not seek power, and hence did not rush to take over as Chief Minister after her father died. Second, PDP’s cadre would have got six months to refurbish their image in rural areas in general, and South Kashmir in particular, where PDP has a strong vote share,” Daanish said.
Political experts say that even if PDP allies with BJP it is doomed to fail and there are only bleak chances that the coalition would complete its full term in the office.
“We witnessed it all during Mufti’s time. Despite, all his political wisdom, he too was pushed against the wall. I wonder whether he regretted his decision in his last days. BJP doesn’t belong to Kashmir, it is as simple as that,” a political expert remarked wryly.