Whether you agreed with him or not, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was without doubt contemporary Jammu and Kashmir’s most experienced and consummate politician.
There was something of the old style political operative about him. He understood his objective, heard you out and kept his thoughts to himself, even as he inquired very pointedly about matters he was concerned about. Yet he did not react openly to your reply, even as you knew he did not agree with what you had just told him. Then, when you least expected it, you would find that he has responded to a concern or would even call on you to do something he has in mind.
The late chief minister was also, in this age of a-big-idea-a-day, a man who cared for details. He was founding chancellor of two state universities that were created during his first tenure. Both were close to his heart; so much so that he never failed to personally call and ask about their progress on a regular basis.
His first stint as chief minister, albeit a truncated one, is well known for the keen sense of grounded politics he brought to office. A canny understanding with the BJP-led NDA which was in power in Delhi at the time resulted in unusually cooperative state-centre relations; the introduction of cellular phones in Kashmir at a time when “security considerations” had kept them out of the state was undeniably a huge confidence building measure; extracting concessions from the army’s excessive aggression on the streets of Kashmir was an enviable achievement and, of course, the famous breakthrough on the Line of Control that divides the peoples of the erstwhile J&K state in an atmosphere when it was considered undoable was an indisputable surprise, regardless of its post facto status.
Mufti’s legacy, Mehbooba’s challenge
Mufti Sayeed’s political shoes will be difficult ones to fill but then situations have a way of throwing up leaders and this will be the case for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In this case, it appears that his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti is set to answer the call of leadership. In many ways, she has been the vanguard of the mood and temper of the party, so it is not surprising that she will succeed her father. That is the answer to the short term question.
The longer term, and more difficult, question is the challenges Mufti’s passing away pose for the future of state politics. There are three parts to this.
The first is the ideological impasse between the coalition partners. The PDP argues for considerably more autonomy and the BJP makes a case for doing away with even the moth-eaten one that is in existence. While there are signs that some areas of governance such as education and infrastructure are making headway, the government can no longer hide from the political contradictions that plague it. Economic development, jobs and infrastructure are no substitute for the political question that is at the core of the dispute in J&K. The PDP will have to face the problem head on if its government is to regain some credibility in its primary constituency.
The party’s dilemmas are complicated and compounded by the fact that there are serious dissenting voices within it, which brings us to the second test for the government. The internal party differences are not only about whether the alliance with the BJP is justified. The latter may be the reason for some, but the dissenting arguments also have to do with the individual expectations and personal ambitions of politicians. In a sense, the latter may require greater political acumen on the part of Mehbooba Mufti. She will need to tackle such expectations soon if her party is to safely steer the ship of coalition through waters that are likely to get choppy. Nor is the BJP immune to the same predicament. There are rifts between the local party cadre and its central command, between local political demands and the national ideological agenda. These differences have contributed to hobbling the functioning of the state government. The BJP too will need to overcome its internal differences if the coalition is to be successful.
On the international front, which is the third arena of trial for the government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lately shown signs of being more conciliatory towards Pakistan, notwithstanding the latest crisis of the guerrilla style attack on Pathankot. Although the BJP, and Modi specifically, has made it clear that the J&K state has no official role in the talks over the dispute, at the popular level the chief minister-designate will have to respond to that exclusion. The categorical exclusion of state opinion and the coalition’s stand on this will impact its credibility. Besides, it is as yet unclear whether New Delhi’s sudden mood-change on Pakistan (albeit for the better) was a result of political will or the compulsions of international pressure and private corporate lobbying.
None of the above challenges are new, of course. But for the past year, the sanguine calm of Mufti Sayeed’s presence and the assurance of his contacts in Delhi across political divides have held the coalition together even as sparks have flown on many an occasion. Mehbooba does not, nor can she be expected to, have the same degree of experience and influence. So the intensity of the challenge will tax her experience, her personal political skills and her networking ability. As chief minister, she will have to steer her party and the coalition through some difficult times; and immediately so.
There is also an overall trial that confronts all of Jammu and Kashmir’s citizens, a Damocles Sword that has hung over the erstwhile state for 68 years now in the cruelest of oppressions: uncertainty. The absence of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s experience and counsel will make that uncertainty more acute, leaving the people that much more on edge.