Mehbooba Mufti begins her term as the first woman Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir with her credibility diminished after the vacillation over government formation. How quickly she regains her mojo will determine her political future and that of the State.
The Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) captured power a mere three years after it was founded in 1999. As if the lightning speed with which it captured power was not surprising enough, it did so with only 16 elected MLAs against the 28 of the National Conference (NC). The result did two things: it created the façade of a democratic choice between two State parties and cut the NC down to size. Those who accuse the deep state in Delhi of manipulating politics to ensure that Kashmir is browbeaten, acquiescent and isolated can be forgiven.
The PDP started its first term well in 2002. It instituted the “healing touch” slogan. It managed to ratchet down some of the Army’s easy, overt and self-confident everyday humiliation of civil society that had become a new normal. It introduced cell phones in the State, a bold move then. And it initiated important ornamental developmental projects, such as the one along the Jhelum river. Regionally the PDP devolved power to Ladakh and took Jammu into confidence. Internationally it called for India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir with uncanny confidence for an establishment-favoured party and convinced Delhi to allow buses and trucks to ply across the Line of Control, albeit with severe restrictions. On the political front it produced an interesting “self-rule” document that challenged Delhi’s stated position.
The second coming
So it was not much of a surprise when it won 28 seats in the 2014 Assembly election. In fact, many had expected the PDP to win at least eight or 10 more seats, giving it close to a majority. But that was not to be and it had to settle for a coalition. However, for a party that had steered so deftly through the waters of the troubled Jammu and Kashmir State, the PDP became inexplicably hesitant and unconfident. Much has been written about the oddity of its coalition with its emblematic and ideological opposite, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The arguments and counterarguments about the coalition can be summed up thus: the PDP fell in line with the pattern of accepting that political power in Kashmir does not flow from its people but from being submissive to Delhi. It is a pattern despised because it favours individual legislators, not the State collective. There were many who argued that the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, if anyone, could best the choppy waters of such an image and its constraints. But, sadly, he passed away after less than a year in office.
Expectations of his daughter Mehbooba Mufti, who has acquired the mantle, were high. After all, she has been credited or defamed, depending on your perspective on State politics, for earning the “soft separatists” sobriquet for the PDP with her activism.
However, in the last three months she suddenly became indecisive, awkward and tentative, casting serious doubts about her leadership abilities among the people. Some have offered her the false hope of escaping this perception by suggesting that she now has the option of portraying herself as being unwilling to compromise for power. It is an impression that cannot be sustained in the light of her eventual decision to return to the status quo ante. Besides, the people of Kashmir are way past such naiveté. But Ms. Mufti’s actions, or more accurately her inaction, after her father’s demise demonstrate that she may lack the courage of conviction of her pre-election politics and her pre-government-formation posturing.
Losing her touch?
Three examples will suffice as evidence of her backsliding on long-held positions.
First, not once did Ms. Mufti, who is known for her rapport with the people, speak to her broader constituency after January 7 [Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s demise]. She was a perfect candidate to do what politicians do when faced with a Hobson’s choice: approach the people and ask them for their preference. The politician may end up eventually doing what she concludes is best; but giving an ear to the people’s will goes a long way in acquiring a feel for their pulse. The opacity of the PDP’s decision-making process as the BJP allowed them to twist in the wind has done Ms. Mufti much damage.
Second, a political leader cannot overlook the first lesson of leadership: taking calculated risks for the betterment of the people you presume to lead. During this latest hiatus in Jammu and Kashmir’s civilian governance, Ms. Mufti has shown herself to be risk-averse in dealing with Delhi when in power and more willing to risk the ire of her constituency. This will not make governance easy.
Finally, the ultimate test of leadership is courage of conviction in difficult times. It could not have been easy for the Chief Minister to discover, as it’s rumoured that 15, if not more, PDP MLAs had indicated a readiness to form the government with the BJP “with or without Mehbooba”. Everything about her past suggests that if this was true, she would call their bluff, expose the greedy politicians and give the people an opportunity to punish them in the next election. To have succumbed to their blackmail was not an instance of making pragmatic political concessions; it was one of capitulation.
The must-do list
Thirteen months ago the State Assembly was wobbling immediately after it started. Today it is a house of cards that can tumble even against a moderate breeze. But it would be churlish negativity to not wish Ms. Mufti and the new government well in its uphill trudge, no matter how much one disagrees with them. As for the tasks ahead, there appear to be at least three important ones.
To begin with, there is a need for the PDP to regain its credibility in Kashmir, its key constituency. There are those in the kitchen cabinet who probably argue that there will be a turnaround in perception once there is development on the ground. It would be a grim mistake to believe them. Those who enjoy pelf from proximity to power are very few in number. It is the other 90 per cent one has to answer to, and the PDP’s credibility with them is as low as it gets.
Ms. Mufti should be harsh on the Trojan horses within her party who believe in grazing on pastures provided to them by the party but drink at the opposite well, even if it be the well of its coalition partner. With the government in place, they will have less manoeuvrability for a while. She should isolate them and weed them out. The people of Kashmir will appreciate it.
Third, the PDP must transparently, loudly and unrelentingly press for delivery by the BJP without splitting hairs over the interests of its State unit and the majoritarian rulers at the Centre. It may threaten the government’s longevity, but better the short one of an Achilles than the insulting period of twisting in the wind that the State has seen in the last 15 months.
Even in sceptical Kashmir, there is always a honeymoon period for newly elected governments, albeit shorter than that of others. It would not be wrong to assume that the same applies for the first woman Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. What she can make of it may well determine her political future.
Siddiq Wahid is former Vice-Chancellor, Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir.
2015 Kashmir Despatch