Mehbooba Mufti may be the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir but the task at hand is tough, if not tougher than any of her predecessors. She used gender to her advantage while building the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and is still remembered for how she crisscrossed the Valley, dropping in at every home that saw an unnatural death but that was when she was an Opposition leader.
Mehbooba crafted for herself a strategy in which ‘soft separatism’ lay at its core: she was there when civilians were killed by security forces; when young men went missing; when ‘Delhi’s Army’ was found guilty of human rights violations; when Afzal Guru was hanged and when any BJP leader asked for the abrogation of the politically sensitive Article 370 that confers the state a special status.
The same Mehbooba has now walked into the chief minister’s chamber with the BJP as her ally. For the ten months that her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was at the helm, she and her team of confidantes had everyone believe that she was not really in favour of the power-sharing arrangement but went along with her father’s decision.
Mehbooba position has changed quite dramatically. In the run up to the elections in 2014, she ruled out an alliance with the BJP, saying, “We would not like to take the BJP’s support. The people have understood that the only way out of the BJP’s divisive agenda is to give full support to the PDP. They are not only trying to divide us communally, but along ethnic lines by looking at Sikh, Pandit, Gujjar and Shia vote banks. Ultimately it will get polarised along the lines of Muslim Kashmir and Hindu India and that is very, very, dangerous.”
She did not openly voice her views after Mufti Sayeed signed the Agenda of Alliance and became the chief minister saying it was important to bridge the gap between Jammu, which voted for the BJP and Kashmir, which defied the boycott call in a bid to keep the BJP out of the Valley. Mehbooba, however, made her views clear after her father’s death in January when she said the alliance was an ‘unpopular decision’. She chose her words because she was aware of the ground reality: the PDP’s stronghold of South Kashmir was reacting and its youth taking to armed insurgency. Her bastion was turning out in large numbers for funerals of slain militants.
Mufti had the political sagacity to back his decision but Mehbooba appears to have backtracked on her own assertion that she would not continue with the agenda of alliance unless Delhi announced confidence-building measures. In the fame of political one-upmanship, the BJP appears to have won over Mehbooba.
Mehbooba’s test lies in her ability to impress upon New Delhi the need to look at Kashmir through a political, not nationalistic prism. The first woman chief minister will have to work overtime to bring political and economic dividends to her people.