Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Union minister Nitin Gadkari called on Mehbooba Mufti on Sunday as the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief delayed taking charge as the new chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir after the death of her father, setting off speculations of a political re-alignment in the state.
Congress and PDP leaders called Gandhi’s 30-minute visit to Mehbooba’s home in Srinagar’s Gupkar a “purely personal meeting that has nothing to do with politics”.
After Gandhi, Union minister Gadkari went to Mehbooba’s home and was there for about 15 minutes.
PDP sources said there was no clarity yet on government formation despite a late-night meeting of party workers and legislators at her home. Mehbooba made a brief appearance and avoided talking politics.
“Mufti Sahib was her guide, mentor, anchor and friend. She needs time to get out of the shock,” a senior party leader said.
Mehbooba was unwilling to take oath as the next chief minister until the four-day mourning period ended on Sunday, with the fateha or special prayers at Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s native village of Bijbehara where thousands of people congregated.
Political analysts attributed Sunday’s turnout to Mehbooba’s perceived tough stand on government formation with the BJP.
The PDP was apparently disappointed, and shocked, with the “thin attendance” at the late chief minister’s funeral on Thursday afternoon and some party functionaries wanted to sever the alliance with the BJP.
Analysts thought the delay could be a “pressure tactic by the PDP to avoid any renegotiation with the BJP” because several leaders of its ally were reportedly hankering after better portfolios.
The BJP, which has agreed to back Mehbooba as Sayeed’s successor, has kept the suspense growing by not officially confirming its support in writing to governor NN Vohra.
The party compounded the buzz, saying the PDP has yet to communicate on government formation in the state which has been under governor’s rule following chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death.
Deputy chief minister in the Sayeed government, Nirmal Singh of the BJP, said: “We have sent a letter to the governor, informing him that we will take a decision on government formation after getting a response from the PDP. Whatever response we get from the PDP, we will act accordingly.”
“We are still as close as we used to be…” he assured.
Singh’s assurance failed to hide the ostensible undercurrent of unease between the coalition partners.
In this context, Congress president Gandhi’s visit was seen as an offer for the PDP to rethink its alliance after Sayeed’s death. Earlier in 2015, the Congress offered unconditional support to the PDP but Sayeed had turned it down, arguing that an alliance with the BJP would benefit the state.
“Mufti Sahib cut across party boundaries. He was beyond party affiliations. He belonged to everybody,” said Gandhi, whose party ran a coalition government with the PDP between 2002 and 2008.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who accompanied Gandhi, said the party chief came to meet Mehbooba because she and her father were with the party before floating the PDP in 1999.
Union surface transport minister Gadkari dismissed speculations that politics was discussed during his meeting with the PDP chief. “It is no time to talk politics. I have come here to convey condolences on behalf of the central government. We will try to fulfill all the assurances given to him on Jammu and Kashmir.”
The PDP also insisted the coalition was intact but senior party leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig hinted that options were open as “things can change anytime in politics”.
(With inputs from Ashiq Hussain in Bijbehara and HTC New Delhi)