If the strikingly scant turnout at former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's funeral on January 8 was anything to go by, Mehbooba Mufti, his daughter and political heir, needed a miracle to revive her Peoples Democratic Party's fortunes in the valley. Mehbooba knew this well, and, in fact, she was trying for one when she bargained hard with the BJP, her party's coalition partner in the state, for a few favours. She pushed the BJP leadership to give more funds for the victims of the 2014 flood, sanction two hydel projects and withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from some parts of the state, thinking that such steps would help restore her party's credibility among people.
But the BJP did not budge, and even outmanoeuvred Mehbooba by spreading rumours of fissure in her party. And, about three months after Mufti's death, a visibly weakened Mehbooba was sworn in as the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir on April 4.
The rift in the PDP was visible at the swearing-in ceremony. Senior leader Tariq Hameed Karra, MP, boycotted it saying Mehbooba had ignored his advice to drop ministers Haseeb Drabu and Nayeem Akhtar. “They tried to cause a split in the party and sideline Mehbooba,” said Karra. “I told Mehbooba to send out a strong signal by giving them no room in the new government. There is no introspection on her part. After a debacle, introspection takes place. She has not done it. She is keeping snakes up her sleeves.”
Former minister Altaf Bukhari rubbished Karra's allegations, and said he did not want to force an election. “My objective was to make Mehbooba chief minister and that was the last wish of Mufti sahib,” he said. Bukhari has been asked to focus on the upcoming municipal elections in Srinagar, the first test for the PDP after Mehbooba took charge. Srinagar is a stronghold of separatists, who hold a grudge against the PDP for joining hands with the BJP.
Mehbooba's tough stand towards the BJP after the death of her father had split the PDP into two groups. The stronger faction wanted her to form the government with the BJP, fearing that an election could spell doom for them. The other group wanted to snap the partnership and seek pardon from the people in the election. What forced Mehbooba to take a decision, however, was the Centre's overt interference in the state. The Narendra Modi government released the much awaited second instalment of the monetary aid to the 2014 flood victims through Governor N.N. Vohra. Then the governor ordered the dredging of the Jhelum, the main culprit of the deluge. He enhanced the monthly ration from 5kg of rice to 7kg and ordered the removal of the Army camp in the Tattoo ground in Srinagar. People of the state hardly felt the need of a chief minister. This unnerved the PDP leadership, forcing it to fall in line.
THE OPPOSITION National Conference and the Congress were hoping that the PDP would snap ties with the BJP to pave the way for elections. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah's disappointment was apparent when he taunted PDP legislators after the swearing-in ceremony saying he looked forward to hearing all the members of the alliance chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. The Congress boycotted the function in protest of “the undemocratic ways of destabilising Congress governments in some states”. Said Ravinder Sharma, spokesperson for the Congress, “The PDP and BJP formed an unholy alliance in the state even though the two parties contested assembly elections against each other by projecting different ideologies and manifestos.”
When the Mufti died, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and a group of senior leaders visited his Srinagar house to pay homage. Apparently, it was to show the party's willingness to support the PDP if it breaks off from the BJP. But Mehbooba refused to take the bait. Instead she used the situation to bargain with the BJP, but only to capitulate to it after her meeting with Modi on March 23.
“WHEN YOU meet the prime minister of the country, naturally the solution to the problems faced by the people of Jammu and Kashmir is clearer,” Mehbooba said after the meeting. Though she tried to create an impression that she had achieved something substantial, the BJP deflated the hype balloon. Party general secretary Ram Madhav said the BJP would accept no conditions other than those agreed in the agenda for alliance.
Mehbooba, who is currently a Lok Sabha member, has years of experience as a mobiliser, but little as an administrator. The BJP is likely to exploit this. In fact, even when the Mufti was chief minister, BJP legislators often ignored his orders.
Mehbooba made a good start in her first meeting with the council of ministers, giving a strong warning against corruption. “People are very vigilant these days. Keep it in mind that if you fail to perform they will teach you a lesson in the next elections,” she said. She also spoke about expediting file disposal across departments and asked the chief secretary to improve the file management system. “I will be personally monitoring the file disposal system, especially in the civil secretariat,” she said.
The iron hand approach, however, is unlikely to work on every occasion, considering the peculiar political situation in the state. Ever since the PDP-BJP alliance came into power, the bureaucracy has been divided on communal lines. “The BJP is promoting Hindus in Jammu, and the PDP Muslims in Kashmir,” said former chief minister Farooq Abdullah. Mehbooba will have to strike the right balance between the two regions, as in Jammu she is widely seen as a pro-Kashmir politician.