Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has been regarded by many as the wily old fox of Kashmir politics. His five-decade-old career attests to this dubiously vaunted reputation. In 2002, his long innings in politics seemed to have come to an end. However, it was then that his fledgling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) came out of nowhere to win 16 seats in the Assembly poll, a development which — according to ex-raw chief AS Dulat’s book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years — surprised even New Delhi. It was the first-time ever that a Valley- based regional party had fared so well against the then monopolistic National Conference in Kashmir which could secure only 28 seats that year, a drastic reduction from the 57 seats it got in the 1996 poll. With just 16 seats in the 87-member Assembly, Mufti went on to become the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister for three years as part of a rotational arrangement with the Congress which had 21 seats, the Panthers Party four and a few independent mlas.
In those three years, Mufti was in the thick of action. He started on a dramatic note with a statewide anti-encroachment drive which brought the administration, then immobilised by rampant insurgency, back on its feet. He ushered in a relative sense of security among people crushed by years of an unremitting security stranglehold. His true contribution, however, was political. Mufti created a political middle-ground in a state where none existed. He straddled the state’s mainstream-separatist divide, opening a political space which sought to pander to both ideological streams albeit struggling to appear convincing in the process.
Unlike his predecessor Farooq Abdullah, Mufti happily played along with the then ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan which led to the re-opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road in April 2005. It was the biggest confidence building measure for Kashmir since 1947.
Along the way, Mufti appropriated the agenda and the slogans of the Hurriyat. His party also adopted Musharraf’s fourpoint terminology in a clever ploy to be on the right side of history should the then promising India-Pakistan engagement culminate in a breakthrough. In addition to this, Mufti also prepared a party document titled ‘Self Rule’ which prescribed a Kashmir solution more or less along the lines of the Musharraf ‘formula’.
So long as he was the chief minister, Mufti ensured he was in complete control, not allowing anyone to interfere with his authority, not even the then J&K Governor SK Sinha. Mufti confronted Sinha when the latter tried to force his will on the government as the chairman of Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). In fact, in popular perception, the confrontation with Sinha played out as yet another tug-of-war between Kashmir and New Delhi. In fact, it was this clash which sowed the seeds of the 2008 unrest when the SASB announced the transfer of 40 acres of forest land for the development of the infrastructure for the Amarnath pilgrims. Rhetoric- wise, the PDP now teetered on a version of separatism which was classified as soft for its advocacy of a radical Kashmir solution within the ambit of the Indian Constitution.
The move discomfited New Delhi but Mufti had built up his political brand: A reputation for a largely responsive governance, an aggressive Valley-centric agenda, and the reflected glory of the modest successes of the India-Pakistan peace process. All this was to boost Mufti’s prominence. He increasingly came to be seen as a sort of ‘regional-national’ leader who could hold considerable influence on India’s policy on Kashmir. However, times have changed and it is this stature that is on the line in the PDP’s stumbling alliance with the BJP so far.