Leader who straddled Srinagar, New Delhi

  • Publish Date: Mar 11 2016 12:47PM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 11 2016 12:47PM
Leader who straddled Srinagar, New Delhi

When V P Singh's Jan Morcha government fell in 1991, following withdrawal of support by BJP, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who was the union home minister was suddenly thrown into political wilderness. He briefly rejoined Congress,  but only to find he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the party’s High Command. This forced him to return to J&K where he pushed his divorced daughter Mehbooba Mufti into politics. She fought 1996 Assembly polls - first to be held after the outbreak of militancy in 1989 - on Congress ticket and won.
 In 1999 Mufti formed People's Democratic Party, letting Mehbooba take centre stage while biding his time on the sidelines. But nobody set much store by the party with Mufti at its helm. He had no visible constituency in Valley, lacked charisma and was seen too pro-New Delhi to be accepted in Valley with its conflict-ridden politics steeped in separatism and sub-nationalism.
 But three years on, Mufti would be heading a PDP-Congress coalition government. In landmark 2002 Assembly polls, PDP against all expectations won sixteen seats, upstaging NC‘s decades-old dominance which was reduced to 28 seats from an unprecedented 54 in 1996 polls. Though Mehbooba had made this electoral performance possible through her tireless grassroots campaign and an appeal to the Valley’s endemic separatist sentiment, Mufti worked the networks in New Delhi to stitch up an alliance with Congress to form the Valley’s first democratically elected non-NC government in over thirty years.
 In the following three years that he was the Chief Minister, Mufti incarnated a politician who hewed ever closer to Kashmiri sub-nationalism, while retaining his identity as a mainstream leader. In the process, he created a new politics which subsumed the state’s mainstream-separatist divide. The clever blend which significantly expanded the party’s political appeal soon came to be known as “soft-separatism”.
Mufti made a redeeming difference to the governance too by ensuring a more effective delivery of government services, Power supply improved, the damaged infrastructure was restored and the notorious State Task Force of J&K Police responsible for human rights excesses was reigned in. His government ensured an uninterrupted electricity supply through the fasting month of Ramadhan which created a lot of goodwill in a place where at the time the supply had reduced to a trickle.
 But Mufti’s real achievement was in realizing the wider possibilities of the politics. He widened the scope of his political agenda to accommodate the broad features of the separatist objective. The party coined a vocabulary to simultaneously echo and replace the separatist discourse. It started talking about self-rule, demilitarization, cross-LoC mechanisms, etc, something separatists championed. 
 The party’s self rule document, released in the run up to 2008 Assembly polls, called for a drastic renegotiation of Kashmir ’s relations with New Delhi in a broader politico-economic framework involving Pakistan. The document sought a constitutional restructuring, dual currency, roll-back of central laws applicable to the state, an elected governor, even the renaming of the titles of governor and chief minister as sadar-i-riyasat (president) and the prime minister respectively.
 The centrepiece of the governance structure under self-rule was the cross-border institution of Regional Council of Greater Jammu and Kashmir. This council, the document said, would replace the existing Upper House of the Legislative Council and will have members from J&K and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as well as the nominees of the Government of India and Pakistan.
 “Kashmir enjoys a special position in the India ’s Constitution as per the terms of the state’s accession. We have a separate constitution and the separate flag,” Mufti said in October 2008 while releasing the self-rule document. “We want this special status to be strengthened. We want the president of India should have no authority to dissolve Kashmir assembly. We want an elected governor who is a state subject”.
 Besides, under Mufti, the party in no uncertain terms expressed its admiration for Musharraf’s four point proposals on the state. The then productive peace process between India and Pakistan came handy for him. Unlike Farooq Abdullah who opposed India, Pak talks before him, Mufti played along and supported the engagement. His party also spoke the terminology of the Musharraf's proposals - self-governance, demilitarization, joint mechanism between divided Kashmir's - in a clever ploy to be on the right side of the history should the then promising Indo-Pak engagement culminate into a breakthrough on the state.
 Even though his occasional lurches towards trademark separatist rhetoric made New Delhi uncomfortable, the political brinkmanship helped PDP pander to its core vote bank in Kashmir so cleverly appropriated from the thrall of the separatists.
 But his ideologically antithetical alliance with BJP didn’t help his carefully contrived image. Forged out of a sense of necessity than conviction, the alliance severely circumscribed Mufti’s ability to play his natural middle-of-the-ground politics. He was forced to strictly limit himself within the confines of the mainstream politics. So, for once, he was unable to make the mandatory nods to the political conflict in the state and press the urgent need to resolve it. There was no aggressive talk of the competing formulae and the visions of a Kashmir solution. It was  more about bijli, sadak, paani, naukri and the tarqi.
 Over the past ten months of this coalition, Mufti thus looked out of place - tame, passive and as his founding colleague in PDP Muzaffar Hussain Beigh described it, "caged". He seemed withdrawn, haggard and not in command. His initial bid to stake out a larger role for himself hoping Modi to change into Vajpayee was rebuffed by BJP.
 But tragically, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed Vajpayee by making a dramatic stopover in Lahore to greet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mufti was flown to AIIMS and admitted in Intensive Care Unit. Though he did issue statements from the hospital hailing the Modi visit and also one condemning the Pathankot attack, he will not be there to witness the course of future engagement between the two countries.