Fractious party, angry supporters: The many challenges before Mehbooba Mufti

Fractious party, angry supporters: The many challenges before Mehbooba Mufti
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The contours of the power transition seem fixed, and yet there is a frisson of anticipation in Jammu and Kashmir’s political circles. Within days, Mehbooba Mufti will most likely take over as the state’s chief minister, filling a position left vacant by the death of her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. But will she prove an able administrator? And how will she manage the expectations of her party’s disillusioned supporters?

Mufti Sayeed died in Delhi on Thursday of multiple organ failure after a brief illness. Hours later, a delegation of the Peoples Democratic Party met Governor NN Vohra in Srinagar and handed him a letter asserting that all 28 PDP MLAs backed the 56-year-old party president Mehbooba Mufti for the chief ministership. The PDP’s ally in the state government, the Bharatiya Janata Party, too has hinted at extending her full support. On Friday, BJP leader Ram Madhav, who brokered the alliance last year, had a meeting with Mehbooba Mufti, although he refused to divulge the details of their talks.

According to news reports, Mehbooba Mufti has refused to take oath until the four-day mourning period ends on Monday. Until that ceremony is conducted, it is believed that the governor may use his powers to keep the assembly in suspended animation and perhaps impose a short spell of governor’s rule.

To clear the ruling alliance’s position on government formation, the governor has sent letters to the presidents of the two parties. A spokesman for the governor’s office said, “Besides being in touch with the leadership of the coalition government partners, Governor NN Vohra has also addressed letters by fax to Ms Mehbooba Mufti, President PDP, and Sh. Sat Paul Sharma, President BJP, to urgently inform him about their respective positions regarding formation of the new Government.”

Challenges ahead

Mehbooba Mufti’s ascendance as the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir will mark a major shift in the PDP, where a new generation of leaders is locked in a tussle with the old guard. For the past several months, a few party members had been opposing her appointment as the chief minister, something that had already been hinted at. But now with the party patron’s death, that resistance has dissipated.

Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a former editor who was Mufti Sayeed’s long-time friend, believes that Mehbooba Mufti was the “natural choice” in PDP. She has worked her way up from the ground, he says, by adopting a different political plank. “She converted PDP politics into the Kashmiri Indian identity, while identifying with resistance sentiments. She carved out a small profile that later transformed into the leadership… It was her leadership that made the difference in PDP’s voter turnout the last time.”

The eldest of Mufti Sayeed’s four children, Mehbooba Mufti emerged on the political landscape before the 1996 elections. It was the first time she stood beside her father at poll rallies. And while her father and mother lost the elections, she won from South Kashmir’s Bijbehara constituency as a Congress candidate. After that she never left her father’s side.

As Mufti Sayeed quit the Congress in 1999 and formed the PDP, she helped build it up with her groundwork. When the PDP was in opposition, she fiercely engaged with the National Conference-led governments. She even played a major role when Mufti Sayeed formed the coalition government in the state twice – first with the Congress in 2002 and then with the BJP in 2014. That second alliance did not sit well with the party base in the valley, and winning back their support will be one of Mehbooba Mufti’s major challenges.

“She is a first timer in the administration, which will pose some challenges,” Malik said. “People will not look at her with the same degree of obedience and reverence that they gave to Mufti. But there is no doubt it is a welcome thing that a women is taking control of politics at this level.”