In 1982, when towering Kashmir leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah died at the age of 77, his son Farooq Abdullah was sworn in within hours.
In the Assembly election that followed, Farooq’s National Conference (NC) swept Kashmir, winning 46 seats while Congress which played a regional card in Jammu won 24.
NC formed the government dominated by Kashmir Valley and Jammu felt left out. Farooq also adopted an aggressive anti-New Delhi stance with recurrent invocations to Kashmir’s conditional accession to India. A year later, egged on by New Delhi, Farooq’s brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah split the NC and formed the government with the support of the Congress, only to be dismissed two years later.
In Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s sudden demise, Kashmir has a sense of deja vu, heightened further by his daughter Mehbooba Mufti’s refusal to immediately take oath as the state’s new chief minister. This left an anxious BJP waiting, giving rise to speculations about a non-existent strain in the coalition.
But the absence of Mufti is unlikely to leave the state of affairs unchanged. More so, because Mehbooba is not the measured Mufti. Her politics is loud, in comparison with Mufti and Farooq.
Mehbooba has consciously followed a politics that has attempted to amalgamate the Valley’s mainstream-separatist divide.
The party’s overriding appeal rested on forging symbols and slogans to pander to Valley’s endemic separatist sentiment, thereby positioning itself as the mainstream equivalent of the Hurriyat factions. The PDP’s green flag inscribed with a picture of a pen and an inkpot is similar to the flag of Muslim Mutahida Mahaz, a fledgling separatist political alliance which fought and lost the fateful 1987 Assembly polls thanks to the rigging in favour of NC.
The PDP coined slogans like Goli Se Nahi Boli Se, plied its own Kashmir settlement formula of Self Rule. This mandated an implicit antagonism towards New Delhi which Mehbooba, more than Mufti, took it upon herself to project.
The strategy paid off in a state where political credibility is inversely proportional to proximity with New Delhi. But an ideologically antithetical alliance with the bjp has militated against this tested strategy.
Was Mehbooba’s delay in oath-taking informed by this realisation? Or was she overcome by sorrow? Many leaders in the party would say it is a mix of both.
The delay also sent right signals to the party’s core constituency in Valley: it showed Mehbooba wasn’t after power, was in deep mourning and also wasn’t comfortable with the alliance.
This may have earned her some transient goodwill, but this will soon fizzle out unless she brings nothing new to the table.
The immediate challenge for her will be to reclaim her middle-of-the-road political bonafides, eroded by an alliance with the BJP which made even Mufti look “tame, passive and caged”.
Within a coalition with the BJP there will be little space for a conspicuous lurch towards her practiced Kashmir-centric brand of politics, complete with references and appeals to soft-separatism. At the same time, getting out of the coalition will not only be politically adventurous but also the negation of her father’s legacy.
“We can’t leave the coalition for no solid reason,” says senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter. “This would convey that Mufti Sahib was wrong”.
Mehbooba also faces an uphill task of rallying her own party behind her. Though her grassroots appeal makes a viable challenge to her leadership unlikely, she will find it difficult to ensure subordination of some of the party’s top leaders.
The PDP has leaders like Muzaffar Hussain Baig 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.
But in the long term while Mehbooba could do well with or without them, she will have to find her own political balance between contradictory expectations in New Delhi and Kashmir to survive. The biggest challenge for her would be what every Kashmiri leader has faced and often struggled to meet: to walk the tight rope between New Delhi and Kashmir.
Thirty three years before her, Farooq failed the test and has since seen his party’s fortunes go through an electoral free fall in the state. Will Mehbooba succeed?