Photo Credit: IANS
I first met Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in 1986. He had just been purged from Jammu & Kashmir because of the Congress-National Conference accord and appointed Union Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism. Puffing away at a cigarette in a style you no longer see, he wryly told me about his difficult years in a state where the National Conference had been the dominant party. “It has not been easy to be a Congressman in Kashmir,” he said, “You have to develop a thick skin for the abuse and difficulties heaped on you.”
Over the years, I met him several times, though I cannot claim to be any kind of a friend or even an acquaintance of his. Ours was a purely professional relationship of a journalist and a politician. But besides Civil Aviation and Tourism, Kashmir itself was suddenly rising in the national consciousness.
A fateful shift
Mufti Saheb did not stick long with the Congress, especially with the neophytes around Rajiv Gandhi who were running it. He quit with VP Singh and joined the Jan Morcha in 1987, a development which was to have fateful consequences for the country.
Typical of his style, where symbolism triumphed over substance, VP Singh decided to “solve” the simmering Kashmir problem, which had just led to a near total boycott of the 1989 General Election in the Valley, by appointing a Valley Kashmiri as the Union home minister in his government. The unintended result flowing from this was the detonator which triggered the Kashmir explosion. In a bid to free their colleagues, some militants of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front kidnapped his daughter Rubaiya. Social pressure almost persuaded the JKLF to release Rubaiya but the Cabinet Committee on Security jumped the gun and agreed to the kidnapper’s earlier demands and ordered the release of the JKLF leaders in exchange. Two senior ministers – Inder Kumar Gujral and Arif Mohammed Khan flew down to Srinagar to compel a reluctant Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to implement the decision. The sight of New Delhi caving in transformed the Kashmiri protest and triggered off the militancy.
Ups and downs
Like most Valley Kashmiris, Mufti, who was born in 1936 and educated in Srinagar and the Aligarh Muslim University, began political life as a member of the Democratic National Conference founded by G.M Sadiq in 1957 in opposition to the NC being run by J&K Prime Minister Ghulam Mohammed Bakshi. But central pressure forced Sadiq to re-merge his DNC with the National Conference in 1960. Mufti contested and won the Bijbehara legislative assembly seat in 1962.
However, after Bakshi lost support and was removed and later arrested in 1964, Sadiq became the Chief Minister and in 1965 merged the NC with the Congress. Sayeed who won the Bijbehara seat again, was appointed Deputy Chief Minister of what was now the Congress party government. In 1972, as a member of the Legslative Council, he became the Minister for Public Works in the state government headed by Syed Mir Qasim who had succeeded Sadiq. In 1975 he became the leader of the Congress legislature party in J&K. However, the carpet was swept under the feet of Congressmen when Indira Gandhi signed an accord with Sheikh Abdullah in 1974, paving way for the return of an NC government, confirmed by its victory in the state assembly elections of 1977 in which Mufti lost in his Bijbehara constituency.
Given this experience, Mufti and his fellow Congressmen never really liked the periodic flirtation of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi with the National Conference. They were happiest when ham-handed efforts by New Delhi to force Farooq to contest the 1983 State Assembly election in an alliance collapsed. But the National Conference swept the election and so, the following year, Mufti and Arun Nehru plotted to bring about the fall of the Farooq Abdullah government in 1984 through the instrumentality of the latter’s brother-in-law Gul Shah. But by 1986, Rajiv Gandhi reinstated the Congress-National Conference alliance and Farooq Abdullah returned as chief minister.
To facilitate the alliance between the Congress and the National Conference, Mufti was exiled to New Delhi.
Following the Rubaiya fiasco, and through the high-tide of militancy in the 1990s, Mufti lay low. He rejoined the Congress, he did put forward his daughter Mehbooba who won the 1996 state assembly election from Bijbehara on a Congress ticket when the National Conference won the election and Farooq Abdullah returned once again as chief minister. Mufti himself won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat in 1998.
In 1998, father and daughter walked out of the Congress, and founded the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party and in a high voltage campaign contested and lost to Omar Abdullah for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat in 1999.
But her hard work and Mufti’s shrewd politics resulted in the PDP forming the state government in coalition with the Congress following the state assembly elections of 2002, considered the fairest ever held in the state. Mufti’s big challenge was to create space for two mainstream regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir and he succeeded through a strategy dubbed “soft separatism” by his adversaries. At the outset, he called for an unconditional dialogue between the government of India and the Kashmiris to resolve the Kashmir problem. He emphasised the need for a healing touch in the state, called for action against custodial deaths and human rights abuses. However, as per the coalition arrangements, Mufti served till 2005, when the Congress nominee Ghulam Nabi Azad took over.
Mufti walked out of the Congress alliance over the Amarnath land transfer decision in July 2008 and the line up in the state assembly elections which were due later in the year, saw PDP gains, but not enough to offset the combined power of the National Conference and Congress.
The second innings
After a stint in opposition, the PDP, now well-established in the Valley, made a comeback winning 28, the largest number of seats in the 2014 state assembly elections. However, riding on the Modi wave, the Bharatiya Janata Party surged to 25 seats. Observers wondered just how the circle would be squared considering that the BJP famously stands for gutting whatever is left of Kashmiri autonomy, rather than enhancing it. Mufti decided to bite the bullet and go in for a coalition with the BJP.
The negotiations between the coalition partners were intense and lasted more than two months. The BJP decided to go out of its way to reassure the nervous Valley politicians and even gave up the idea of rotating the chief ministership and accepted Mufti as the chief minister for the full six-year term. Issues like Article 370 and the idea of removing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act were kicked to a committee. Mufti took office for the second time as chief minister on March 1, 2015.
As Mufti’s record shows, he changed his allegiance many times and has been called an opportunist. But he also had qualities of dogged determination as borne out by his leadership of the Congress party when it was not easy to be a Congressman in the Valley – the heyday of Sheikh Abdullah.
The PDP, founded by him and established by his daughter, has introduced a stabilising element into Kashmiri politics by ensuring that the National Conference does not see itself as the default party of the Kashmiri Muslims. More important, it is, like the National Conference, rooted in the belief that Jammu and Kashmir is very much a part of India. There can be little doubt that talented politicians like Mehbooba Mufti who will succeed him as chief minister, are far more gifted than the collection of leaders who call themselves the Hurriyat.