Mehbooba Mufti Now Stands Alone, Staring at a Shaky Political Future

For the PDP leader, keeping her party intact is a humongous challenge. And her own image, which she had built carefully espousing a politics of human rights and justice over the last two decades, has taken a bad hit. 

Srinagar: During the mid 1990s, when the armed insurgency was at its peak in Kashmir and mainstream politicians were viewed as “untouchables,”  Mehbooba Mufti arrived on the political scene in the Valley. In the years to come, she rode on a new narrative of “soft separatism” to build the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) founded by her father Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.

In a little over three years, the experiment paid off as the party made its electoral debut with a bang by forming the first coalition government with Congress in 2002. Mehbooba was given credit for this because of what she had achieved through her outreach in south Kashmir, a region which would eventually grow to be her party’s bastion.

Fast forward to 2014, when Mufti took the unpopular decision to forge an “unholy” alliance with the BJP. It was viewed as a betrayal in Kashmir as the party had sought votes in the assembly elections to keep the saffron party out of power. Just over a year later, when Mufti’s death brought an abrupt end to the coalition, Mehbooba had a chance to call quits and resurrect her and the party’s image among voters. Instead, she chose to stand by her father’s decision.

Today, as Mehbooba stands alone, dumped by her erstwhile ally, her political future looks shaky. The problems facing her are manifold: In south Kashmir, the region that made the PDP a force to reckon with, the party today symbolises betrayal. For Mehbooba, keeping the party – which she built brick by brick – intact is a humongous challenge. And her own image, which she had built carefully espousing politics of human rights and justice for past two decades, has taken a bad hit.

“The challenge for Mehbooba Mufti and PDP is to regain the lost credibility, but for this, they will have to have some magic wand, given how unpopular they have become today,” said political analyst Siddiq Wahid.

‘Unholy’ alliance and lost ground 

The PDP’s popularity started to slide the moment it stitched an alliance with the BJP in March 2015. In the months to come, as the BJP openly challenged states’ unique position within the union of India and vowed to abolish it, Mehbooba-led PDP’s troubles only mounted.

But it was the muscular policy that the PDP-led government adopted in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016 to crush the five-month-long uprising in the Valley that saw its credibility taking a nose-dive.

Soon, south Kashmir became out of bounds for the PDP and other parties. Many of the party’s leaders had to migrate to Srinagar as they became a target of people’s growing anger.

By the time the uprising faded, at least 105 civilians, more than 60% of them from four districts of south Kashmir, were killed due to forces’ action and over 15,000 civilians were injured including 1,200 of those who were blinded partially or completely due to pellet guns.

But problems for the PDP didn’t end there. There was no thaw in protests across Kashmir and civilian killings continued during clashes between forces and protestors. “Peoples memory isn’t so short that they will forget the sufferings they went through for past three years when the party [PDP] was at the helm,” Wahid argued.

Many of the PDP’s senior leaders acknowledge this challenge, agreeing the party would face stiff opposition once it goes back to the people. “These are difficult times for us,” a senior PDP leader acknowledged candidly.

Then, after a brief pause, he continued: “We put our existence, our politics at risk, but whatever we did” – referring to the alliance with BJP – “was aimed to achieve a breakthrough on Kashmir and that couldn’t have been possible without support from BJP”.

All through the past three years, the PDP tried selling the alliance as the coming together of the North Pole and South Pole for achieving a larger goal of peace. It boasted of making the BJP agree to the agenda of the alliance, containing a “roadmap” for a resolution in Kashmir through dialogue at internal and external levels.

But on the ground, the party has little to show on the political front and has been found wanting on the development front as well – its two major power planks. And when the BJP decided to pull the plug on coalition government from New Delhi, the PDP was left struggling to offer some facing saving.

“No spin doctoring will work to save the PDP’s sinking ship. The party is not a victim of any betrayal. It is, by its own admission, a ‘partner in crime’. In the PDP-led rule… thousands of civilians were hit with lethal pellet-firing shotguns; hundreds were killed in cold-blood; thousands put in jail, even minors not spared. Since March 2015, after the PDP and BJP stitched their ‘partnership in crime’, Kashmir witnessed two bloodiest years on the trot (2016 and 2017) which resulted in mass blindings, 700 killings and countless PSAs against youth and elderly alike,” political commentator Gowhar Geelani wrote on social media.

In her first press conference after resigning as the chief minister, Mehbooba tried to put on a brave face, counting “protection” of state’s special status, withdrawal of cases against 11000 youth, a month-long ceasefire and a dialogue offer by the Center to separatists as “achievements” of the government she had headed.

But political analyst Noor A. Baba argued that Mehbooba has “nothing tangible” to show in order to regain the trust she once enjoyed.  “She not only ended up losing a lot of political ground but in the end, she didn’t get even an honourable exit,” said Baba.

Keeping the flock together

As the political instability continues in the state, the rumours of horse-trading are flying around. On Wednesday, senior PDP leader Haseeb Drabu was forced to rebut a media report that he along with three other party members had met the National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah. Next day, another party legislator Aijaz Ahmad Mir took to Twitter to clarify that he was very much in Kashmir and not in Jammu amid unconfirmed reports that some PDP leaders were in touch with Congress.

That the assembly has been kept in suspended animation and has not been dissolved keeps alive the possibility of another party trying to cobble together numbers to throw up a new political formation.

These apprehensions were expressed by Abdullah on Wednesday after BJP senior leader Kavinder Gupta told a media channel that a new government may not be formed anytime soon…“(but) we are working on something and people will get to know”.

Referring to these “dangerous remarks,” Abdullah demanded immediate dissolution of the assembly to pre-empt any chances of horse-trading by the BJP.

While the PDP hasn’t spoken a word about this danger, the party is aware of the developments that took place after the death of Mufti. A pressure group cropped up from within the party forcing Mehbooba to give up her demands for additional confidence-building measures from the Center to buttress the agenda of an alliance, which hadn’t seen any progress till then. In the end, she took over as the next chief minister of the state without securing anything to salvage her lost credibility.

“There is no surprise that this group resurfaces again and works behind the curtains to throw a surprise this time,” said Baba. “This will be a major concern for the party as there are many MLAs and party leaders who don’t see any future for themselves in the PDP.”

Another PDP leader said they were optimistic of seeing through this “bad phase without any further loss”. “But we can’t rule out attempts by some forces to give shape to an alternate platform,” he said.

This challenge may multiply for Mehbooba in the absence of her father who knew the art of taking everybody along, given that some senior leaders and young workers had the grouse that they didn’t get their due in the PDP-BJP government.

Mehbooba, then and now

A law graduate, Mehbooba contested and won her maiden assembly election from the native constituency of Bijbehara in Anantnag in 1996 on a Congress ticket when her father was the head of the party in Kashmir. But it was three years later when Mufti floated the idea of forming his own party that Mehbooba came into her own as a politician. She would travel deep into the interiors of south Kashmir during the peak of armed insurgency, visit families of slain civilians and militants to offer condolence and protest against excesses committed by the forces. This earned her acceptability among her voters.

“Apart from soft separatism it was her politics of human rights and cry for justice that established Mehbooba in state politics,” said Baba. “She had positioned herself as a crusader of human rights. But today she can’t go back to the politics which gave her recognition. Her tenure is filled with tales of human rights violations and sufferings”.

Last year, Mehbooba told a group of journalists at her residence in Srinagar that her party’s decision to ally with BJP was like “putting our hands in tazaab (acid) knowing well the damage it may cause”.

“But we have taken this risk in hope of achieving something for Kashmir,” she had said.

As BJP pulled the rugs from beneath her feet on June 19, said Baba, Mehbooba has now only to “stare at her burnt hands”. Only time will tell if the damage is repairable, he said.

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.