This state’s first woman chief minister has her task cut out. With an uneasy alliance with the BJP and constant trouble from across the border, she will have to walk a tightrope
By Kalyani Shankar
Fourteen years ago, soon after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took over as the chief minister of J&K, he invited a few scribes for lunch to his Delhi residence. While the rest of us sat in the lawns sipping kehwa after lunch, Mehbooba Mufti sat inside the house with her mother. When I asked her why she was not joining us, she said: “Today belongs to my father and rightfully so.” Now Mehbooba herself has become the CM on April 4, the second Muslim woman to do so after Anwara Taimoor who headed Assam for six months between 1980 and 1981.
Mehbooba was groomed carefully by her father since 1996 when she contested elections from Bijbehara assembly constituency on a Congress ticket. Mufti was in the Congress then. It was the height of militancy and people, especially women, were scared to step out of their homes.
She became the Congress Legislature Party leader and was a firebrand politician who even took on then chief minister Farooq Abdullah. In 1999, when 151 people signed a “vision document” to launch the People’s Democratic Party, few people took note of the founder member, Mehbooba, who was overshadowed by her father. The party which was launched with the blessings of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee grew fast because it was seen as a viable alternative to the Congress and the National Conference. However, in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, she lost the elections to National Conference (NC) leader Omar Abdullah.
Mehbooba’s political rise was in tune with the growth of the PDP and she became its face soon. She was instrumental in the party getting support from south Kashmir. Her pragmatism helped her project the PDP as a mainstream alternative to secessionist outfits which functioned outside electoral politics. Within three years, the PDP came to power with the Congress as its coalition partner.
As per the arrangement with the Congress for a rotational chief ministership, Mufti handed over the reins to Ghulam Nabi Azad in 2005. However, the Amarnath land row that claimed over 70 lives in 2008 clinched the issue and the PDP parted ways with the Congress on a bitter note.
But it went from strength to strength. The PDP increased its tally from 16 seats in 2002 to 21 in 2008 to now become the single-largest party in J&K with 28 seats in the assembly (27 after the demise of Mufti Sayeed). The BJP has 26 seats.
WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE
Mehbooba’s political career too was on an up-swing. She became an MP from the prestigious Pahalgam assembly constituency from 2002 to 2004 and as vice-president of the party, was instrumental in clinching the coalition issue with the Congress when the PDP-Congress government was formed. She took the initiative and made that one important call to Sonia Gandhi to solve this issue. Again, it was she who decided that the PDP should pull out of the Ghulam Nabi Azad government in 2008. In January 2009, she was elevated as president of the PDP. Presently, she is an MP from Anantnag.
As for the alliance with the BJP in 2015, she wasn’t much in favor of it but went along and participated in finalizing the agenda for governance. Though she dilly-dallied for three months after the death of her father in January 2016 to show that she was not hankering after power, she finally took the plunge to become CM.
Mehbooba articulated this in an address to party workers recently when she said in a choked voice: “Whether I become the chief minister or not, the party has to be kept alive. That is the biggest tribute we can give to Mufti Sahib who founded the party for the people and not for any personal benefit.” She claimed that her father’s last words during his illness were not about the properties he would be leaving behind, but about strengthening the party.
Mehbooba knows it is not an easy job for a woman to rule in a male-dominated society like J&K where even educated women remain in the shadows of their men. But she claimed in a newspaper interview recently: “I don’t think gender has anything to do with your capability to govern… People will judge you by your administrative acumen and not gender.”
A DIFFERENT STATE
Nonetheless, J&K is different from other states. This is evident from the first assembly election held there in 1951 when there were no women registered as voters. The lone woman who contested lost her deposit. It was only in the 1972 assembly elections that four women, for the first time, entered the J&K assembly. Since then, the percentage of women in the assembly has never been more than three percent but the number of women contesting elections has been on the rise.
Among them, some stand out. A.S. Dulat, a former RAW chief, pointed out that during Kashmir’s “freedom” struggle, Madre-e-Meharban (Begum Akbar Jahan, wife of National Conference founder Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah) was catapulted into politics and continued to play a key role in the party up to her dying days. Likewise, Zainab Begum, (leader GM Sadiq’s sister), was a minister in Syed Mir Qasim’s government, not to mention Sakeena Itoo, Khemlata Wakhloo, Asiya Nakash and others.
With Mehbooba catapulted to the chief minister’s chair, the challenges before her are many. She is wearing a crown of thorns and has many critics within the party and outside. Plus, there are many players, on both sides of the border, who would want to create trouble for a promising woman leader. Establishing her credibility as an effective leader is a huge task but if she succeeds, she would emerge as a tall Muslim leader.
She faces several problems. Firstly, she will have to consolidate her position within the party and contain dissidence. Then, she will need to manage the PDP-BJP coalition. Many prophets of doom doubt whether the alliance will sustain till the end of the term. Will the BJP cooperate with her and give her respect? The BJP is ambitious and wants to take credit for everything that is done by the state government. The question is whether Mehbooba can implement the Agenda of Alliance, the pact between both parties, in the next five years and whether the BJP will fulfill its commitments.
Mehbooba is aware of the magnitude of the political and economic security in the state as well as the ambitions of some PDP ministers and rising radicalization. The BJP too has apprehensions about Mehbooba because she has built her political career by echoing the narrative of the separatists. She has spoken about human rights excesses that took place there in the 1990s and this has won her popularity. At a time when legislators were afraid to move freely even in secure pockets of J&K, Mehbooba fearlessly travelled to the interiors affected by militancy. She visited families of militants and separatist activists hit by the security forces. In 1999, she went to the home of then Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operations chief Aamir Khan whose teenage son had allegedly been killed in custody by security forces. She can now don the role of peacemaker if she can facilitate dialogue with them.
But the going may not be easy. Her style of functioning is different from her father’s, who had more administrative and political experience. He was patient and knew the art of managing things. He was able to convince people about the coalition with the BJP because of his stature in state and national politics.
Mehbooba will have to be on the right side of the center just like other chief ministers of the state have done in the past. Also, in the last one year, she has learnt that the PDP’s support base has shrunk because of this coalition. Not just that, the huge sum of money promised by Prime Minister Modi has not been forthcoming. Nor did he show common courtesies to the ailing Mufti in Delhi. So she will have to improve her relationship with the center. Also, unlike her father, she hasn’t succeeded in reaching out to Jammu and Ladakh regions and it will be difficult for her to balance the aspirations of all three regions in the state—Jammu, Ladakh and the Valley.
The task ahead for her will be to deliver governance. Victims of the 2014 floods still await rehabilitation as funds were not coming from the center. The shawl trade in the Valley has been hit hard. No industry has come forward to invest. And the youth are beset by unemployment.
Also, Mehbooba believes in good relations with Pakistan. The resumption of Indo-Pak talks is something Mehbooba can use to bolster her own reputation just as her father did in 2005 for starting cross-LoC trade and the Lahore bus service. Any forward movement in the dialogue process would present itself as a great opportunity to Mehbooba to firm up her position as a state leader with a national voice.
Her main strength is her connect with the people, particularly women. She has her own identity as a grassroots politician and is not just Mufti Sayeed’s daughter. Whether in power or out of power, she has worked on the ground, voicing the problems of people. She was humble when she addressed legislators after her election as PDP chief ministerial candidate. “You reposed faith in me. Mehbooba Mufti has no power. Her strength is you people. These were difficult times, a tough examination. I express my gratitude to all of you for keeping faith in me.”
There is no reason to believe that Mehbooba will not be successful. The very fact that she has been unanimously elected leader by of her party despite recent murmurs of dissent is a tribute to her growing stature and the party’s respect for Mufti Sayeed.
Mehbooba certainly needs support from all sides—from the BJP, the media, separatists, the center and above all, her own party. It also depends on how she reinvents herself as a ruler. Will she be more flexible? Will she be able to get everyone on board? Will she strive to become a national leader instead of confining herself to J&K?
There are interesting times ahead for J&K.