One is liable to wonder if Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the new chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, is interested in continuing the alliance with the BJP that his party, the PDP, carefully negotiated over the last two months. Within hours of taking over, Sayeed acknowledged the role of separatists, militants and Pakistan in the peaceful elections in December — and, subsequently, PDP MLAs demanded that the Centre return the mortal remains of Afzal Guru, who was hanged for his alleged role in the 2001 attack on Parliament.
BJP hardliners will be incensed but they should get used to Sayeed’s tactics as he’s an old master of using rhetoric to achieve his purposes. His earlier stint as chief minister during 2002-05 too was marked by criticism of the central government and security forces. His reasons this time are more palpable. He is facing severe criticism in the Valley for allying with the BJP as the latter conjures a range of negative associations, ranging from the 2002 Gujarat massacres to the hardline rhetoric of Jammu politicians who they hold responsible for failing to sympathise with Kashmir’s suffering and spouting anti-Kashmiri rhetoric. Sayeed is answerable to many who turned out to vote just to keep the BJP out of Kashmir — and for that reason the BJP can expect such posturing to continue.
The BJP will have to eschew two temptations when dealing with Mufti. First, its state politicians should not get into an unsavoury tussle for spoils in a patron-client set-up like J&K. Second, Narendra Modi himself must not get into a contest with Mufti to control the Kashmir narrative. In the everyday struggle for the optics of relevance and clout, Modi and the BJP must not forget that Mufti represents a once-in-a-generation chance for New Delhi to substantively pacify Kashmir.
Through a complicated political journey where he donned many roles including the one of being Sheikh Abdullah’s unfulfilled foe, a Union home minister whose tenure was marked by excesses in Kashmir and the appointment of the unpopular Jagmohan as governor to now being called a ‘soft separatist’, Mufti embodies all the contradictions of an ambitious Kashmiri politician. He is known for his ambivalences that are the imprints of parallel networks he has cultivated over the years which have come to trust or need him somehow. The BJP thus endures him now since the RSS mediated the deal, Mufti is said to be close to NSA Ajit Doval and is thus a known commodity for the security establishment; for rural notables and clerics in Kashmir he is a patron and protector — and for separatists and, indeed Pakistan, he is only mainstream player who pays lip service to Kashmir’s human woes even when in power.
The BJP must understand that such contrarian attributes make Mufti a useful vehicle for undoing some of New Delhi’s flawed policies. His implied rhetoric about a dialogue with separatists offers a chance to restore a measure of political agency to the Valley, reversing the UPA and Omar Abdullah’s formulaic policy of incarcerating them at the whiff of protest activity. Mufti may not actually deliver on a dialogue with separatists as that would undercut his own turf but his pro-Kashmir grandstanding, in theory, allows a space for separatist politics to resume in public view rather than drive it underground and let it evolve into unknown forms.
This is important since this is about both Modi’s self-interest and fulfilling India’s democratic obligations. Make no mistake: Kashmir remains deeply disaffected with India owing to past excesses, periodic shootings of civilians, the ubiquitous presence of armed forces in the Valley and strong convictions about its unresolved political status. For Mufti to recover lost ground and achieve more strategic purposes some conditions need to be fulfilled. First, dialogue with Pakistan must continue and prosper. The alliance document makes the link between normalised India-Pak ties and progress in Kashmir explicitly; it sees the coalition’s purpose as catalysing reconciliation and confidence-building across the Line of Control. This makes sense: Pakistan is a factor in J&K’s politics, like it or not; engaging Pakistan generates incentives for Islamabad to put a lid on militant activities and ensure a limited refresh of separatist politics in Kashmir.
Second, Mufti must be allowed to bring about real changes on the ground. His previous stint saw changes in the daily experience of living in Kashmir as he persuaded the security forces to scale back aggressive search and frisk operations. He faced criticism too for integrating the reviled counterinsurgency Special Operations Group into the J&K Police rather than genuinely disbanding it. This time ensuring the return of civilian land taken over by security forces – which is clearly written into the alliance document – will be an important issue. Third, Mufti’s success will depend on the Centre reining in BJP hardliners from Jammu who may seek symbolic reaffirmations of their own power. The BJP’s aggressive cultural agenda nationally is unlikely to help either. Lastly, J&K’s governance agenda and the Valley’s reconstruction after last year’s floods must yield results quickly.
All this is a tall ask. Amid the complex interplay of interests there’s plenty that can go wrong, which is why many expect Mufti to fail. But if his tenure runs the full course Mufti can end up shaping the future of both Kashmiri nationalism and Hindu nationalism. Pro-azaadi intellectuals despise him for being an “Indian by conviction”. Yet by insulating Kashmir from Delhi’s anxieties with his connections and soft separatist rhetoric he maintains space for nationalist narratives while also undermining their sovereign ambitions when pushing for interdependent ties across the LoC. As an older figure he may even moderate Modi’s instincts towards Kashmir. And because he ties his own success to engagement with Pakistan, undermining Mufti will incur the risks of unravelling Modi’s Pakistan plans as well. The BJP must reckon with the full measure of what it has invested in.