Mehbooba Mufti's divorce with BJP may work well for Modi

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantJan 12, 2016 | 16:15

Mehbooba Mufti's divorce with BJP may work well for Modi

Following the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed last week, a game of political chess is underway in Jammu and Kashmir between his daughter Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP, and its alliance partner the BJP.

Mehbooba has three options.

One, continue the PDP-BJP alliance government but with tough new conditions that the BJP may find hard to stomach.

Two, break the alliance and forge a new one with the Congress to form a government with it (as it did in 2002-08) with support from independents.

Three, dissolve the J&K state assembly, call for fresh elections, and hope to win an absolute majority riding on a sympathy wave for the Mufti.

Mehbooba has said she will reveal her cards after "seven-eight days". Meanwhile, she will assess all three options and pick the one that will propel the PDP into J&K's natural party of governance.

What should the BJP do?

In May 2015, shortly after the PDP-BJP formed an alliance government in J&K following two months of tortuous negotiations between the BJP's Ram Madhav and the PDP's Haseeb Drabu, the Mumbai Press Club held  an event to debate Prime Minister Narendra Modi's achievements and failures on the NDA government's first anniversary.

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and I were on the dais while a packed hall of journalists hurled questions at us. Among the Modi government's "failures", I listed its alliance in J&K with the PDP.

The PDP is a pro-separatist, pro-Pakistan party. Allying with it on the grounds that it would respect the fractured mandate of the J&K electorate was, I said on record at the event, a specious argument. It would further alienate Jammu and the BJP's support base in the rest of the country. The electoral cost could far outweigh any benefit that may or may not accrue from being the junior partner of the PDP in J&K.      

The Mufti legacy

What kind of chief minister will Mehbooba make? How different will her leadership style be from the Mufti's? To answer these questions, a flashback.

In August 2004, a Jet Airways flight from Delhi to Srinagar was about to take off. A sudden flurry of activity on the tarmac delayed shutting the aircraft's doors. Two men emerged into the cabin followed by gun-wielding security guards. Both were profusely apologetic for causing the slight delay - just over five minutes - in the scheduled take-off.

The PDP's Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, then serving his first term as chief minister of J&K, sat down wearily in the first row's aisle seat. His companion, veteran Congress leader Mangat Ram Sharma, then deputy chief minister of J&K, eased himself into the window seat next to him.

The two men exchanged barely a word. Their body language sent out a clear message: the chief minister and his Congress deputy chief minister were deeply uncomfortable in each other's company.

I happened to be on the same flight to Srinagar for a pre-arranged interview with Mufti. Seated across the aisle from former Mumbai sheriff Bakul Patel and me, the Mufti spotted Bakul, an old friend (and wife of Rajni Patel, the late Congress leader, once one of the most powerful men in Mumbai).

The Mufti, crafty as ever, thought up a quick solution. He asked Bakul if she would switch seats with his deputy chief minister: they could then talk about Kashmir's fraught politics during the short Delhi-Srinagar flight.

Bakul, a partner in my media firm, was happy to oblige. She and I were anyway scheduled to interview Mufti in Srinagar the next day. Some preliminary political tidbits would come in handy.

I found myself spending the rest of the flight sitting next to deputy chief minister Mangat Ram Sharma, a thoroughly pleasant Congress politician of the old school. Slowly, he opened up. The situation in J&K is bad, he said. How about the Congress' relationship with alliance partner PDP? I asked. He shook his head grimly.

Choosing his words carefully, the veteran Congress leader analysed in detail the three issues that confronted J&K: Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, Hurriyat separatists and development.

It therefore came as a mild shock to the Congress when Mangat Ram left it to join the PDP just months before the December 2014 state assembly election - proving again that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies.

Mehbooba is more outspoken than her late father. She is also more sympathetic to the Hurriyat separatists. And she is as mercurial as Mufti was equable. The Mufti, after initial misgivings, had developed a rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even praising him as a strong leader who was likely to be PM for ten years.  

Will Mehbooba be able to keep the PDP-BJP alliance on an even keel or will her strong separatist views cause a rift with the BJP? Clues to her future behavior were visible when Bakul and I interviewed the Mufti for over three hours at his home the day after we landed in Srinagar. Mehbooba joined us later over lunch. Though reluctant to say much in the presence of the Mufti, she spoke of the evolving political situation in the Kashmir Valley. She seemed conscious of the need to focus on development in J&K, keeping ideological issues aside. But self-rule was never far from her mind.  

Congress president Sonia Gandhi met Mehbooba on Sunday in Srinagar, ostensibly to condole her over the Mufti's demise. She was accompanied by veteran Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni. Politics was clearly on the menu. Union minister Nitin Gadkari met Mehbooba immediately after in an effort to retain the alliance.

The PDP has 28 MLAs in the 87-seat assembly. The Congress has 12, the BJP 25 and the National Conference (NC) 15. There are 7 independents. To form a government with the Congress, Mehbooba needs the support of four of those independents in order to secure a slender majority of 44 seats.

Will the PDP-BJP marriage of convenience survive Mehbooba's pro-separatist ideology and the tough new conditionalities she has imposed? Mehbooba is unlikely to break the alliance just yet - it would cast a shadow over her father's decision to ally with the BJP. She has also experienced the high-handedness the Congress exhibited during the PDP-Congress alliance government in 2002-2008.

In the long-term, however, a Mehbooba-led PDP-BJP government is unlikely to overcome its constituent parties' inherent ideological contradictions. She will force the BJP to compromise on key issues, including rehabilitation of Kashmiri pandits and retaining AFSPA, both of which resonate nationally.

A political divorce may therefore not be such a bad thing for the BJP. It could lose a state but win a nation.

Last updated: January 13, 2016 | 16:59
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