Over to Mehbooba

As happens with every change of guard, Mehbooba Mufti’s impending takeover as the new J&K Chief Minister is generating some subdued excitement in Kashmir. She has only further fanned it by refusing to take oath immediately after her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s demise. Some reports have pointed out that she has laid down some fresh conditions for continuing alliance with BJP. Others have highlighted how big shoes she has to fill. And still others have underlined her inexperience as she has never held an administrative post before.  While all these reports are still in the realm of speculation, what is not conjecture is that she is the leader who can be legitimately credited for building PDP as a mass-based party. When PDP was founded in 1999 after 151 people signed a vision document, few people in Valley took note of it. The fact that it was headed by Mufti was reason enough to ignore the development. Though an erstwhile union home and tourism minister, Mufti  enjoyed little following in Valley. For a predominant majority at the time, bred in a separatist narrative, he represented New Delhi in Kashmir.

But within just three years PDP was a part of the state’s first elected non-National Conference government since 1975. In 2002 Assembly polls, the party won 16 seats which enabled it to form a coalition with Congress with Mufti as Chief Minister  for the first half of the six year term and Ghulam Nabi Azad for the latter half.

What turned a newborn outfit into a vaunted political force overnight? It was Mufti’s daughter Mehbooba Mufti. At a time when mainstream politicians in the state couldn’t move freely even in the secure pockets of Srinagar, Mehbooba travelled to deep militancy-infested interiors of the Valley to connect with people. She visited families of the militants and the separatist activists in an outreach to the Valley’s endemic secessionist sentiment.

Over the years, Mehbooba has distinguished herself as a grassroots politician who has straddled the J&K’s mainstream-separatist divide – at times precariously so by lurching too  conspicuously towards the separatist side. In better part of the past decade, Mehbooba positioned herself as the champion of the self-rule, a settlement formula which calls for a drastic re-negotiation of Kashmir’s relations with New Delhi in a broader politico-economic framework involving Pakistan. This pitched PDP as the mainstream answer to Hurriyat: as a party which sought a resolution to Kashmir issue along radical lines but within the Constitution of India. And more than Mufti, Mehbooba became the face of this narrative. Though she has since come a long way – losing the government to NC-Congress alliance in 2008 and now getting it back in partnership with the ideologically antagonistic BJP – her takeover is by no means less interesting.  More so, after the functioning of the coalition government over the past ten months which has taken its due toll over the PDP and its public image in its core constituency in Valley.  There is a perception that while BJP has continued to ply its aggressive agenda political agenda on the state, PDP has shelved its own. Will Mehbooba change that? Nothing can be said with certainty.  Given the state of affairs, Mehbooba will have to do a tightrope walk to pull the coalition along. But to stay politically relevant, she will have to do more than play strictly by the unhelpful conditions, BJP is ready to afford her.

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