Why Mehbooba Mufti will have to rely on more than just optics

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If Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s 80-minute-long maiden speech in the state Assembly on Saturday is any indication, Mufti seems keen not to rock the dinghy on which her coalition government is riding.

Mufti, who heads an alliance of her Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, took over as chief minister in April after a three-month stalemate between the coalition partners following the death of the former chief minister, her father Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, in January.

But since Sayeed passed away, Mehbooba Mufti’s focus seems to be on manufacturing a perception of growth and peace, and crushing dissent by force. But whatever Mufti claims, her image, particularly in Kashmir, is of someone who opened the gates to enable Hindutva ideology to take root in the Valley.

In her Assembly speech, Mufti defended her father’s decision to ally with the BJP. But the fact that she took three months to strike her own deal with the BJP after Sayeed’s passing is evidence enough that the alliance had not yielded any gains for the regional party.

Though Mufti uses her late father as a shield and constantly notes that he was the one who first agreed to the alliance, it is unlikely that strategy will work long. After all, Sayeed was long seen as Delhi’s man in the Valley. It was during his tenure as Union Home Minister in 1989-’90 that the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act was imposed in the state, giving the military legal immunity for its actions. During Sayeed’s tenure as home minister, unprecedented human rights violations took place in the Valley.

Pigeons and cats

Attacking the Opposition parties, particularly the National Conference, during her speech, Mufti asked for time to ease the sufferings of the people, glossing over the fact that her father had run the government for 10 months last year.

Mufti waded into a controversy when she spoke about Kashmiri Pandits. Referring to reports that the state government planned to house Kashmiri Pandits who wanted to return to the Valley in gated townships, Mufti said that Pandits must not be put like “pigeons among the cats”. She said that Pandits could move to transit townships, before eventually settling in their ancestral homes.

Several parties picked up her analogy to attack Mufti for demonising Kashmiris.

The National Conference accused Mufti of abandoning her party manifesto to avoid displeasing the BJP. The main opposition party said even as the PDP has abandoned its own policies, but BJP was still following its own plans.

Report card

The PDP-BJP alliance has little to show since it formed the government for the first time in March 2015.

The PDP’s election manifesto mentioned initiatives like closer ties across the Line of Control, a dual currency for Kashmir and the section of the territory occupied by Pakistan, open borders, strengthening the J&K Bank and seeking a share in the profits of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation.

But a recent report revealed that as of March 2016, the J&K Bank’s gross Non-Performing Assets soared to Rs 4,368.6 crore from Rs 3,339.5 crore the previous quarter.

Similarly, any profit-sharing with power companies is unlikely unless the state has a stake in the project. Earlier this month, Union minister for power, coal and renewable energy, Piyush Goyal, ruled out transferring hydropower projects operated by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation to the state. “Share in profit is given to stakeholders,” he said. “No state can have a special category in share of the profits from the hydropower projects.”

Similarly, the PDP’s manifesto called for the “use Article 370 itself to restore the original special status of the state”. However, Mufti seems inclined to keep status quo on the article, which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir. This seems like a concession to its coalition partner, the BJP, which wants Article 370 abrogated.

Clamp down

Moreover, the space for dissent under the PDP-BJP government has shrunk.

In its manifesto, the PDP promised to “support the budding civil society” and “allow conduct of elections to student bodies.”

But the ground reality is different. Even as Mufti spoke in the Assembly, her government was imposing restrictions on a civil society meeting at Rajouri – state authorities sent back a group of columnists, activists and academicians even before they reached the venue.

Pro-freedom leaders are being arrested regularly, and peaceful seminars are being sabotaged. The issue of student bodies’ elections was only raised once till the time the BJP strongly objected to it.

Consequently, there is a deep-rooted anger on the streets of Kashmir against the ruling party, and hanging on to people’s support in Kashmir is increasingly looking like an uphill task for the PDP.

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