After months of protracted dialogue with the BJP, Mehbooba Mufti has been sworn in as chief minister. But navigating a coalition with a party ideologically opposed to the PDP may be her toughest challenge.
Srinagar: In 1996 when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the then head of the Congress in the state, couldn’t get many winnable faces for the assembly election, he fielded his daughter Mehbooba Mufti as a candidate from his home constituency of Bijbehara in south Kashmir.
Mehbooba won the election and went on to challenge the writ of J&K’s grand old party, the National Conference – the first signs of a politician in the making.
On Monday, April 4, almost two decades after turning her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), into a political force to reckon with, 56-year-old Mehbooba was sworn in as the first woman chief minister of the restive state, heading a coalition government with the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), in the only Muslim-majority state.
A law graduate and mother of two girls, Mehbooba begun her political career in the shadow of her father in the Congress at a time when the state had just come out of six-years of central rule and militancy was at its peak in the Valley.
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 the major shift in her political career came in 1999 when Sayeed quit the Congress and floated his own party, the PDP.
Mehbooba was one among the handful of people who committed themselves to realise Sayeed’s dream – a party with a green-coloured flag and an inkpot and pen as the election symbol.
And thus began the daughter’s journey to provide a “political alternative” to people of the state. When mainstream leaders would be reluctant to come out of their fortified residences in Srinagar for fear of militant strikes, Mehbooba, who by now had assumed the image of a firebrand leader, would travel to the Valley’s hinterland to visit the families of slain militants and separatists whose kith and kin were killed or subjected to human rights violations by state forces.
The architect of her father’s rise in state politics, Mehbooba continued to build her connect with the people, especially women, at the grassroots level.
The strategy paid off. Within three years of its launch, the PDP rose to form a coalition government with the Congress in 2002, bagging 16 seats in the assembly and forcing National Conference to sit on the opposition benches.
Sayeed, for the first time, became the chief minister. Although many believed that the moment was hers for the taking, Mehbooba refused to be part of the government, having won the Pahalgam constituency, and instead committed herself to the expansion of the PDP. Two years later she won the Lok Sabha election from south Kashmir.
The next big moment for the PDP came in 2008 when the party raised its tally to 21 seats in 87-member assembly under Mehbooba’s leadership. She returned to the state assembly from Shopian’s Wachi constituency. But 2014 was the watershed moment in the PDP’s history – it emerged as the single largest party in the state, bagging 28 seats.
From near split to Mehbooba’s anointment
In March 2015, following three months of negotiations, Sayeed decided to form the government with the BJP, a move that won him criticism and dented a blow to party’s popularity in the Valley. To add to the party’s worries, controversies continued to chase the PDP – the flag controversy, beef ban, demand for abrogation of J&K’s special status, delays in rehabilitation of flood victims and slow decision making. The PDP became the target of people’s ire for the first nine months of the coalition government.
While Mehbooba maintained a low profile during these months, she assumed a central role when Sayeed’s health deteriorated in December 2015, and after his demise on January 7, 2016.
With Sayeed’s death J&K came under the Governor’s rule, which remained in place for a prolonged period as Mehbooba refused to take the oath as the next chief minister of the state immediately, demanding from the Centre some state-specific measures.
Amid a hardening stand by both parties, the negotiations between the PDP and BJP reached a dead-end on March 19 and a split appeared inevitable when the BJP’s pointman on Kashmir, Ram Madhav, announced no headway had been made in the talks.
But it was a “positive” meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 23 that brought the alliance back on track, paving the way for Mehbooba to become chief minister, though little is known what transpired in the half an hour meeting between the two leaders.
Challenges for Mehbooba
To run a coalition between two parties with extreme ideologies will be the biggest challenge Mehbooba faces in her new role, even as she reiterated her intention to carry forward her father’s ‘healing touch’ policy.
“Her lack of experience in handling the administration will be a big test of her and she will have to win the confidence of her bureaucracy to provide good governance,” political analyst Rekha Choudhary told The Wire. “At the same time Mehbooba will have to rebuild the trust with New Delhi which will be critical to her success as the Chief Minister.”
On the party front too, the challenges will be many for Mehbooba. She will have to establish her writ within the party at a time when her focus must also be on running the government. Her ability to reach out to her core constituency – the Valley – would be critical to her party’s fate in years to come, particularly when people are still skeptical about the PDP’s alliance with the BJP.
With Sayeed no more by her side, it is now Mehbooba’s alliance with the BJP. Only time will tell how well she will do in her new role.