Speculation began on 18 August when PDP president Mehbooba Mufti went on her first political outing since the formation of the PDP-BJP government in March. Addressing the party workers at South Kashmir town of Anantnag, Mehbooba broke down when she talked of the poor health of her father, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “He is not in the best of health. He has sent greetings to all of you,” she said struggling to regain her composure. “Please pray for his long life.”
This sent tongues wagging all over the state. Mehbooba’s return to political life following six months of silence was seen as a precursor to her imminent succession as the new J&K chief minister. The developments that followed her speech only served to reinforce the suspicions. After attending two successive cabinet meetings on 19 and 21 August, the CM left the state for nine days. Nobody knew where he had gone until Mehbooba revealed that Mufti had “gone from Delhi to Mumbai and Bangalore to meet his son”.
However by now the situation had gone out of hand. Even the former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted about the CM’s health. “Rumors about Mufti Sb’s ill health are rife. I hope they are wrong & pray to Allah for his long life & good health. Allah shafa bakshay (sic)” Omar wrote on Twitter.
Mufti, however, did return to the state on 1 September. He attended the office, met a few ministers and visitors and cleared some files.
This might have reigned in the runaway buzz about the impending change of guard but it has by no means put it to rest. At 79, and grappling with the age-related health issues, few people in the state believe that Mufti will hold the reigns through the six-year term.
“I think it is but a matter of time before Mehbooba takes over,” says David Devadas, the author of In Search of a Future, the Story of Kashmir. “And as and when it happens, it will usher in a profound shift in Kashmir politics”.
Mehbooba is credited with turning PDP from a tentatively forged party of out-of-work politicians in 1998 to a vaunted mainstream political force. She built her political stock by echoing the language of the separatist movement, if not its intent, and by playing to the amassed grievances from the nineties which NC under Farooq Abdullah was ill-equipped to handle.
She has never occupied any government post and the arrangement has been largely to PDP’s advantage. Her measured distance from the governance has enabled the party to hold its own and pursue its grassroots political programme. Mehbooba hasn’t shied away from creating a perception of a subtle tension between the government and the party if only to ensure that the shortcomings of the former do not reflect on the latter.
Hence the all-important question. What will happen when Mehbooba leaves her political comfort zone and assumes a leading role in governance? More so, when her political and ideological leanings have been a source of unease in New Delhi. In his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, the former raw chief AS Dulat wrote that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government suspected her of having links with Hizbul Mujahideen and even accepting help from the outfit during 2002 election.
But it has been thirteen years and Mehbooba has since evolved as a politician and become in Dulat’s words “more circumspect”. In Kashmir, however, it is not her perceived ideological predilections which will be a problem, it will be her ability to manage not only a difficult coalition with BJP but also to rally her own party behind her. PDP has leaders like Muzaffar Hussain Beigh and Dilawar Mir who not only far predate her entry into politics but also have a political standing of their own with electoral constituencies tied more to their person than to the party.
With Mufti still around and overseeing the transition, this should not be a problem — albeit temporarily. And then she will have to chalk her own political path. The major challenge for her would be what every Kashmiri leader has faced and often struggled to meet: to walk the tight rope between the contradictory expectations in New Delhi and Kashmir. Mehbooba will have to ensure that New Delhi continues to trust her politics and the people in Valley do not suspect her of middle-of-the-road ideological stands.