In Kashmir, the Baton Passes from Father to Daughter

File photo of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with his daughter Mehbooba Mufti and then Defence Minister Pranab Mukharjee after a meeting with UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi in October 2005. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed passed away at AIIMS in New Delhi on Thursday . Credit: PTI

File photo of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with his daughter Mehbooba Mufti and then Defence Minister Pranab Mukharjee after a meeting with UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi in October 2005. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed passed away at AIIMS in New Delhi on Thursday . Credit: PTI

Mehbooba Mufti, president of the Peoples Democratic Party and daughter of the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, will be in for the biggest challenge of her political career as she prepares to take over the reins of  Jammu and Kashmir, a state that is not only politically unstable but one where religious fault-lines run deep.

Sayeed, 79, passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, early Thursday morning after being hospitalised for a severe lung infection for roughly two weeks. His death comes 10 months after he was sworn-in as chief minister of the ideologically-divergent coalition of the PDP and Bharatiya Janata Party.

Sayeed’s death, in the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “leaves a huge void in the nation and in Jammu and Kashmir, where his exemplary leadership had a major impact on people’s lives.”

“What stood out about Mufti Sahab was his statesmanship. …In his long political journey he won many admirers across the political spectrum,” said Modi, who paid tribute to Sayeed on Twitter.

It is this void left by Sayeed that his daughter, whose political career spans over two decades, will now be expected to fill.

“Mehbooba ji is the obvious choice within the party for taking the new role (as chief minister) as and when the decision is taken,” said government spokesman Naeem Akther.

According to sources, the decks have been cleared for Mehbooba becoming Jammu and Kashmir’s first female Chief Minister, with the BJP “on board”.

Mehbooba’s rise and the challenges ahead

Ideally, 56-year old Mehbooba would have liked her father to be by her side to see the transition take place and also to rein in the voices of dissent, both from within and outside the party.

But now the job gets much tougher – she has to dispel reservations in the minds of her ally, the BJP, reinforce her position in the PDP and present herself as the leader for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

“It will be a litmus test for her,” political analyst Rekha Choudhary told The Wire.

Mehbooba’s journey as a politician began in 1996, when she won her first assembly election as the Congress candidate from south Kashmir. Within two years she went on to play a major role in her father’s victory as the Congress candidate from south Kashmir in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

But a major shift in her political career came a year later when Sayeed floated his own party, the PDP. Mehbooba and some supporters of Sayeed were among the first to commit to the idea and work towards realising her father’s vision.

Within the next three years, the party, once dismissed as insignificant on J&K’s political turf, rose to form a coalition government with the Congress in 2002, posing a serious challenge to the state’s grand old party, the National Conference.

Behind the PDP’s miraculous rise was Mehbooba, whose “mission” to connect with the people had already begun; she was known to visit the families of slain militants and people whose kith and kin were subjected to human rights violations by state forces.

Her connect with the masses helped the PDP earn the peoples’ support at the grassroots level and emerge as a potent political force. The results are evident today as the PDP stand as the single largest party, leading the coalition government in the state, and capturing 28 seats in the 2014 elections.

Over the years, as the party grew from strength to strength, Mehbooba, who was twice elected to the state assembly and parliament, steered clear of government responsibility and instead worked to strengthen the party at the grassroots level.

Now, as she readies to step into her father’s shoes, Mehbooba will have to address challenges at two fronts: First, she will need to deal with growing dissent within the party, with two senior leaders, Muzaffar Hussain Baig and Tariq Hameed Karra, both MPs, leading an internal rebellion. While the former has been a vocal critic of the government’s style of functioning, the latter has slammed the party for allying with the BJP.

In the past, New Delhi and the BJP have had reservations about Mehbooba, as has been recounted by former RAW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat in his memoir, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years.

“The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government suspected Mehbooba of having links with the Hizb [ul Mujahideen] and even accepting the militant group’s help during the 2002 election…”, writes Dulat.

Political analyst Professor Gul Muhammad Wani believes the transition will be “full of difficulties and challenges” for Mehbooba, given the political situation in the state and also because she doesn’t have any experience running a government.

“Her challenge will be also running the coalition government with the BJP. She will require navigating through the pulls and pressures within the party and within the coalition and then there are problems related to youth unrest, militancy, issues related to development, reconciliation and peace process,” said Prof Gul.

Outspoken and vocal, Mehbooba’s style of politics is quite different from her father’s; as party president, she has always been in control. But now she will have to navigate her way through multiple challenges to ensure the government moves ahead smoothly.

End of an era

From an ordinary lawyer in his hometown of Anantnag, Sayeed went on to become Union Home Minister in 1989; he eventually returned to J&K as chief minister and carved a distinct niche for himself, both in national and state politics.

With a political career spanning more than 60 years, Sayeed, a quiet politician who enjoyed good relations across the political spectrum, was known for his ability to modify politics according to the circumstances.

He started his political career with the GM Sadiq-led Democratic National Conference in the 1950s. In 1962, he was elected to the state assembly from Bijbehara and later appointed as deputy minister by Sadiq, who by then became chief minister. Eventually, he joined Congress Party a few years later.

The Congress gained a foothold in J&K once Sayeed joined. In 1972, he became a cabinet minster, and soon rose to the position of state Congress chief.

While he was the head of the state Congress, the party withdrew support to the Sheikh Abdullah government, which saw the state come under Governor’s rule ahead of the 1977 elections. Years later, in 1984, he was also seen as instrumental in overthrowing the National Conference government-led Farooq Abdullah, which led to Abdullah’s brother-in-law, GM Shah, rising to power with the support of the Congress. However, Shah’s stint was short-lived as the state came under governor’s rule again in 1986.

The following year Sayeed became tourism and civil aviation minister at the Centre. An astute politician, he joined hands with VP Singh in 1988, and eventually became the country’s first Muslim Home Minister in 1989, the year an armed uprising erupted in J&K.

After his stint in national politics he returned to the state to form the PDP, an “alternative” to the National Conference, a decision that was described by Sayeed himself as his “biggest achievement”.

“My satisfaction is that I gave an alternative to the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Sayeed had told a press conference.

“He knew the art of politics and of keeping the flock together in trying circumstances, and now he was in control of a coalition that is otherwise poles apart, ideologically,” said Gul.

It will be this Sayeed – a former Union Home Minister and one-time Congress loyalist welcomed in all three regions of the state – that will be missed the most by his daughter Mehbooba and the PDP.