Mufti is dead, long live Mehbooba
She's easily the best choice, but will ally BJP allow her to become the first woman CM of Jammu and Kashmir?
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Exactly five days ahead of what would have been his 80th birthday on January 12, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, breathed his last. For Peoples Democratic Party, the death of the PDP patron has left behind hope and despair, alike.
Despair that the state has lost a veteran politician, who in his political career spanning over six odd decades, ended the monopoly of the Abdullahs and the National Conference, in regional politics. And, hope that Mufti left his legacy in the able hands of PDP president and daughter Mehbooba Mufti, well connected to the grassroots.
For PDP, the condolence message sounds proverbial: Mufti is dead, long live Mehbooba. According to a Rising Kashmir report, a day ahead of Mufti's demise, government spokesman Naeem Akhter said: "There is a complete consensus in the party on Mehbooba becoming the chief minister whenever there will be a change of guard."
Today, senior party leader Muzaffar Hussan Beg upheld the same viewpoint. "As far as PDP is concerned, we are unanimous that Mehbooba shall succeed Mufti Sahib," senior PDP leader and Lok Sabha member Muzaffar Hussain Baig told The Hindu.
But Mehbooba's coronation is subject to a nod from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a key to the alliance in the restive state. And, this does not seem to be a cakewalk.
Today, while offering condolence on 92.7 Big FM, deputy CM Dr Nirmal Singh of BJP categorically told RJ Haya that the party was yet to decide Mehbooba's fate as the "issue was never discussed till date".For national parties like BJP, Mufti and Mehbooba carry two different meanings. Veteran Mufti, who has been India's first Muslim home minister in 1989, always played his cards close to chest. But Mehbooba, a many-time lawmaker, has never been a minister, not even in the previous PDP-Congress coalition.The late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with daughter Mehbooba Mufti. (File photo)
But this is presumably because the 56-year-old Mehbooba, a law graduate from Kashmir University, was never overambitious: she behaved like a "PDP sewak". Mehbooba, who has assumed the image of a fiery leader, made her debut in politics in 1996 by joining Congress along with her father. Three years later, the duo formed the PDP.
It was her sewak-like connectivity with the ground, and door-to-door campaign of "healing touch", which empowered PDP to overthrow NC in the 2002 elections. And, Mufti subsequently emerged so successful a CM in alliance with Congress, that even the BJP trusted him to lead the state again.
But this time, age and health were not on Mufti's side. On November 13, 2014, amid rumours over his ill health, Mufti formally expressed his desire that Mehbooba should take over.
Talking to reporters in Jammu, Mufti said Mehbooba is "mature" enough to take over the reins of the state. "She is the president of PDP, works hard in the field, represents a constituency in the Lok Sabha, became member of State Assembly first time in 1996, so she deserves all this," he said.
But then the reaction from BJP was shocking. The next morning senior leader Avinash Rai Khanna, who had been instrumental in bringing the two parties close, ruled out the change of guard in the coalition.Khanna, who is the BJP's chief whip in Rajya Sabha, said there is no truth in "rumours" on the transition of power in the PDP from father to daughter.
"There is no truth in the rumours that a change of guard is on the cards in Jammu and Kashmir. The coalition government is running smoothly. No such meeting or communication has taken place between Mufti and the BJP high command," said Khanna.
As of now, though BJP is likely to let Mehbooba be sworn in, the party may find it opportune to bargain on power sharing, in the state it has never ruled before. Till now, it was to be a six-year turn for CM from PDP; now, it might be a rotational CM of three years.
Over the past few months, uncertainty over Mufti's successor has been so prevalent in the alliance that the state government did its best to keep his ailment under wraps.
On December 24, when Mufti was flown to AIIMS in Delhi, and admitted to the intensive care unit, the information department back home issued a statement that CM was "absolutely fine".
Though he continued to be "absolutely fine" in the ICU, there was no further official comment on his condition till December 29. Finally, when home minister, Rajnath Singh, visited him at AIIMS, hospital authorities broke the silence in the health bulletin, confirming that his condition was critical.
With Mufti's death, J&K needs a new CM. Mehbooba is the first choice, the best choice. While PDP has kept its fingers crossed, ally BJP's blessing will decide the fate of Mehbooba's prospective transition as the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.