In an overwhelming situation triggered by conflict, Ms Mehbooba Mufti led a marathon campaign to make her father relevant to Kashmir, thus creating a new alternative in unionist politics. Now she is confronted with the crucial decision-making about the power and the party that she inherited. Masood Hussain traces the trajectory of a woman to the corridors of power, an area dominated by males for centuries
The situation is pretty unprecedented. PDP president, Ms Mehbooba Mufti who was expected to get into the “over-size” shoes of her father and mentor within hours of his demise is restricted to the Fairview Guest House, at Srinagar’s power street, the Gupkar Road. The delay has slipped J&K into governors’ rule, for the second time since 2014.
Mufti was J&K’s third Chief Minister who died in office. In case of Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the successors took oath of office, almost the same day. But Ms Mufti initially took the mourning route to skip immediate succession. Now the real politic has taken over. Ally BJP is in shock. It runs the risk of losing the ground if the party does not resume power.
Ms Mufti has been a reluctant and an accidental politician. She joined politics to please her father. She was part of the decision-making throughout but never took a decision without consulting her father. With Mufti not around, Ms Mufti will have to take a call finally. And the issue on her table is not an ordinary one. Her political future rests on this decision.
Despite being daughter of a ‘powerful’ man, Ms Mufti had a routine upbringing. Born (May 22, 1959) at Akhran Nowpora, she schooled from Presentation Convent in Srinagar, graduated from state-run Women’s College in Jammu with English literature and then law from University of Kashmir.
Soon married within the extended family (to her father’s cousin), the relationship remained edgy throughout. By the time, they decided to call it a day; she was already mother of two daughters – Irtiqa and Iltija. The trained lawyer went perhaps to court for her divorce only. By then, Mufti Sayeed as India’s home minister had faced an embarrassing situation when JKLF kidnapped his medico daughter. The family moved to Delhi.
Knowing the unpredictability in politics, she started working. For nearly five years, she served the Bombay Mercantile Bank at its Asif Ali Road branch in Delhi. Later she was briefly with East West Airlines. By then, her father decided to return home and was desperately looking for candidate in 1996. Ms Mufti resigned and contested from Bijbehara. With both her daughters in the primary school, Ms Mufti won the election and became a lawmaker.
News photographer Abdul Qayoom has extensively covered Ms Mufti’s formative years in politics at the peak of strife. “For the initial months, I was unable to get a good photograph because she would hold the mike with both her hands and would see into it while speaking like a shy shadow,” Qayoom remembers. “It took her time to lift her eyes and look towards the crowd.” The real orator striking a chord with the crowd emerged much later.
Qayoom remembers Ms Mufti as a “remarkable woman” who exhibited bravery at a time when it was difficult to even move around. He remembers one of her visits to Harai (Kupwara) where Ikhwanis operating from a local garrison, had made life of a young lady hell. “She drove to the village and trekked to her home and after meeting the lady she visited the army camp,” Qayoom remembers. “As she was talking to the officers, I was shivering in fear and then she came out smiling saying the officers have promised the Ikhwani will be reined.”
Then, movement of politicians was an ordinary affair – no long cavalcades, not many escorts, no jammers and no cell phones. “One day while she sent me home in her gypsy with her PSO, I was stopped by BSF in Karan Nagar, they disarmed the cop saying he was a militant and took both of us in custody and till past midnight we could barely convince the BSF that we were what we were,” Qayoom says. “That was Srinagar, and one could only imagine what might have been the situation in the periphery.”
Then, mourning halls were the venues and human rights were the only issue. Condolence was the only talk. Father-daughter would interact with people, see if there was something that needed their intervention and usually it was the local security camp or the SOG. “Unlike her father, Ms Mufti would get emotional seeing the tragedies,” Qayoom said, “I remember in Shopian where three 90-year-old were killed mysteriously, she broke down at one place.” Usually, she would return home distressing.
These contacts helped Ms Mufti get elected from Bijbehara in 1996. Soon, her father won south Kashmir Lok Sabha constituency in March 1998, a position, he held for a year.
Situation changed dramatically after Muftis’ resigned from Congress and floated PDP. All of a sudden, cavalcades became respectable as public gatherings became better and receptive. The 1999 Lok Sabha polls were perhaps PDP’s major mass contact programme. It didn’t win any seat but got a wide introduction.
Mehbooba’s campaign was aptly covered by Aunuhita Mujumdar, then with The Statesman. She was “cashing in on the feeling of alienation simply by dint of being there on the spot to offer her sympathies,” Mujumdar wrote in September 1999. “She has converted into votes the anti-government sentiment that the Hurriyat seeks to convert into a poll boycott.”
Her mass argument was simple: “When you are not cured by one doctor do not you go to another. So why do not you change the party? Try a new shop. Your problems will be solved. It is 50 years now. Give us a chance.”
Her gender was her advantage. In conflict, women are the principal suffers, and Ms Mehbooba could relate with them better. “This occupation has made us very strong as well. The mother has lost her son. The sister has lost her brother, so I think it has made us strong,” Mehbooba told al-Jazeera. “I can feel the pain and think that’s where you connect with each other and that’s where women were able to connect with me because of their pain and we could relate to each other.”
A strong anti-NC incumbency and party’s staunch pro-people stand fetched PDP 17 berths in 2002 and power knocked at their door.
“I would call them the Doubles like Sarena Williams and Sania Mirza, complementing each other and really not mattering if single,” a PDP insider said. “Mufti Sahab with strong Indian credentials knew how to govern better and Mehbooba Ji strongly pro-people and soft separatist evolved into the best hand to stay connected with ground zero.” As he created the new milestones in governance, she was there to market it. That helped PDP to get cadres and an instant acceptability as an alternative to grand old NC. Amarnath Land row in 2008 led PDP to leave the alliance and Ms Mufti was the major decision-maker.
Six years of NC-Congress (2008-14) rule defined Ms Mufti as an opposition leader. On AFSPA, she created a situation that governor N N Vohra could not complete his speech to the joint session of legislature (February 25, 2008). On July 29, 2009, she led her party to accuse Omar of being part of the 2006 sleaze racket forcing him to resign till Raj Bhawan certified his innocence. In 2009, she used the twin Shopian “murders” to ensure Omar government did not get any benefit of doubt.
During 2010 unrest, Ms Mufti was literally on tenterhooks. “As we gather here today Kashmir is marooned in its own blood,” Ms Mufti told the All Party Meeting that then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh presided in Delhi on September 15, 2010. “We (J&K) are just a security enterprise and no more a people who could be owned by political worthies for this or that electoral calculation. A people fit only for a dole or a package and not a resolution of their problems on decent terms of engagement which would help them find their own development moorings in a world full of growth opportunities.”
For all these years, Ms Mufti conducted politics in such a way that she ensured Omar doesn’t do much. She contributed in keeping the governance on an auto-pilot mode. From the “assassination” of Haji Yousuf to the embezzlement in cricket association, she reduced the government to a mere reactionary institution. She left no spot to grieve and was perhaps the only unionist who managed reaching Gool in 2013 to celebrate the birth of orphan whose father was killed only days before. Finally, September 2014 floods helped Ms Mufti more than anybody else.
But the rise of Mehbooba as a politician in a male-dominated, conflict-ridden spot was not without tensions. While leading her party to Shopian in 2009, she faced lampooning at the hands of local NC cadres. Even in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Srinagar, on one July 13, an abusive assault on her was televised live – only to create a sympathy wave for her.
Despite NC alleging that PDP had tied-up with militants to immobilize some of its South Kashmir leaders, Ms Mehbooba had her own share of attacks. The first was a a devastating IED attack in Dachenpora belt when the father and daughter were campiagning for Abdul Rehman Veeri for the state assembly. Verri says that was in 1999. “Father and daughter were in a car and I was folowing in a Sumo,” Veeri said. “The blast was so massive that the engine of their car was destroyed but, thank God, they had a miraclous escape.” The second was a grenade attack in Tral. Then Shafat Sidiq, the news photographer washed away by 2014 floods, accompanied her.
On April 25, 2004, militants attacked her motorcade in Kulgam killing three persons as Mehbooba had a providential escape.
“The worst was the attack on her on April 08, 2004 in Uri,” remembers Bilal Bhadur of Kashmir Life, who accompanied her. Nine people were killed and 30 injured in that attack. “Ms Mufti was on top of a vehicle and many leaders were moving in a group when somebody lobbed a grenade and then followed by firing. They somehow ran into a shop and finding me alone on the road, she asked me to get in and then they downed the shutters.”
Mehbooba was elected to Lok Sabha twice in 2004 and 2014. But her Delhi stay, even her adversaries admit, failed to help her connect with the power corridors. “She was asked many times by people including her father that she must communicate and connect,” an insider said. “Her response suggested she feels suffocated in Delhi and the culture that fetches social contacts of the powerful passes through area she does not like.” Ms Mufti hates partying.
Unlike her father, Ms Mufti is socially entrenched in Kashmir. She invites her relatives and visits them. That is perhaps why, many people believe that in case of her ascend to power, the four people who would influence her are all from the family – Mrs Andrabi (her aunt), Sartaj Madni (her uncle), Sajad Mufti (the forester whom her father inducted into the party) and, most importantly her elder daughter.
Ms Mufti is so entrenched in local culture that the power hasn’t changed her. She still invites relatives and party men to a dinner when the family cooks pachi or have a gad-e-baet, rice with fish. “Every time, she would invite us (party leaders) for tea, I know it is the peculiar Presidential tea,” says one party leader. “It uses to be salt tea with pre-mixed Sattu (roasted maize flour) and a Kulcha.” She is an early dining person and loves MacDonald’s Fish Fillets. Unlike her father, she dislikes Wazwaan.
Street shopping at Janpath has remained her Delhi routine. But she has a huge Abhaya wardrobe. Ms Mufti has never been in public in J&K with her signature Abhaya. Once in hurry, she forgot her stole at home to be discovered by somebody who picked it and rushed out. When Ms Mufti asked the person for being in such a hurry, apt came the response: “Madam, you had forgotten Mehbooba Mufti at home!”
A practicing Muslim, who prays and observes fasting, Ms Mufti believes in enduring relationships. She nominated her friend Anjum Fazili to assembly and spends most of her spare time with Gulzara Ji, her Peer. After an Umrah earlier, she performed Haj as head of India’s official Haj delegation in 2014 but continues to be a frequent shrine-goer.
Ms Mehbooba declared Rs 47 lakh assets in the last elections and has a case pending against her that NCs Ali M Sagar filed.
But what defines Ms Mehbooba as a person is being “her father’s daughter”. People knowing Muftis’ see Ms Mufti as the “only man” in the family. “She was the only person who knew exactly what Mufti needed and when,” one insider said. “She only would know which cup of tea suits his tastes.”
For all the days Mufti was in AIIMS, Ms Mufti has stayed just a night away in Jammu. Before that she single-handedly managed her mother who had undergone knee surgery.
“To be honest, she was in politics just to please her father,” one PDP leader who knew the family for long said. “She had her view almost on all issues that confronted the party but would never go against her father’s decision.” She had meekly resisted a number of entries into her party but finally accepted her father’s decision. In certain cases, she cried to protest but surrendered at the end. She thought her father to be sort of a ‘political darvesh’ who had the premonition. Sometimes an angry Ms Mufti would tell party ministers “not to mislead him”.
One key decision she was unhappy with was PDP’s alliance with BJP. But she couldn’t stop her father who was lured by the big picture and decided to go against the wind. As she followed her father in their alliance, she was aware of every single development that was taking place. With father not around, this is the issue that will now define Ms Mufti.
Ms Mufti has remained bitter over the ‘raw deal’ meted out to PDP. Insiders said this was one subject that would be part of routine evening talk at Fairview. Unlike her father, she would get restive over the judicial adventurism of right wing party on sensitive issues concerning Kashmir. “She knew the costs because she is aware of the pulse of the people on ground,” one party insider said.
This bitterness was at play when Arun Jaitely drove to ask about Mufti’s welfare in AIIMS. She talked loudly about how her father was wronged in response to the “sacrifice”. That was perhaps the reason why Jaitely signed the Rs 1200 crore flood relief file on january 4, that was pending decesion for along time. Home Minister Raj Nath Singh who flew with Mufti’s coffin repeatedly told Ms Mufti that he doesn’t make a distinction between her and his daughter. Later when Ram Madhav met her in Srinagar for around an hour, various such issues cropped up. Her stand was simple: BJP was free to go wherever it wanted, if it wished so. She was bitter over the Prime Minister not findig time to even ask the welfare of her father in AIIMS, barely a five minute drive from his 7 Race Course Residence. Rajnath Singh is reported to have rang-up Madhav four times during the meeting suggesting him not to offend Ms Mufti, anyway. This led Nitin Gadkari to insist that Delhi will do everything to realize Mufti’s Kashmir dreams. Delhi flew Union Finance Secretary to meet Mehbooba and take note of the pending issues.
As N N Vohra is ruling the state, PDP initially made it public that it is keen to see its gains and losses on account of Agenda of Alliance in last nine months before moving ahead. PDP is restive over being ditched, at the last moment, on making return of two power projects not part of the so-called Rs 80,000 crore package. Delhi, they say, stayed highly conservative in helping Kashmir’s flood-decimated economy. As Omar Abdullah attacked the new posturing, a top PDP leader said the nine months of Mufti led government were packed with fundamental reforms that will start showing now.
But when Ms Mufti finally had an intercation with her party for five hours on January 17, she made everything clear. She said she is committed to what her father had decided – on alliance with BJP, because it is aimed at changing teh course of history in the subcontinant. She insisted that the Agenda of Alliance was inked after a hard negotiation and she would never try to bargain “even if she is consumed” (politically). Her only plea was that given the vision of her father and PDP founder, she would take her time to see if she could deliver after she succeeds her father as the next chief minister of the state. This was in response to her party leaders suggesting her to lead them.
As Ms Mufti emerges the final decision-maker in PDP, perhaps for the first time in her two decades of political career, the challenges for her are enormous. Firstly, the party exists in factions: empowered versus disempowered; MLAs versus MPs; proletariat versus bourgeoisie and pro-BJP versus anti-BJP. Secondly, the issue of party leadership will be a family versus party debate. And finally, reviewing the alliance performance is complex because it may involve questioning political wisdom of its founder.
Ideally, exiting from the alliance will help it restore its moral high ground and somehow cease the slide it has started witnessing starkly for last 10 days. But will snapping of alliance force a new election and a possible victory? If it could barely manage 28 berths at the peak of historic anti-NC wave in 2014, will the party improve its tally with a rightwing baggage? Fall of the alliance entails massive costs for BJP in Jammu and it will be an advantage to Congress.
There is a probability that PDPs key concerns on the Agenda of Alliance might be addressed at the highest level.
By the time, Ms Mufti has started addressing the party. She has already got Beig back but efforts on ‘king-slayer’ Tariq Hameed Karra froze when he resorted to his anti-BJP diatribe after mourning at Fairview for four days.
If situation finally encourages Ms Mufti to takeover as is expected, she would be a different person in the civil secretariat. Style may change but not the substance, one PDP leader predicted insisting she appears, but isn’t, a conventional. Expected to be populist, she may prefer Mir Qasim over Bakhshi. She would be stubborn but would still have compassion, be courteous and respectful to her colleagues. One leader said she carries a woman’s heart and will not be a “cold-blooded politician” but would sound “introvert at times”. Unlike Mufti, she would restrict herself to the welfare of J&K without excluding the ‘external dimension’. Normally a gossip-lover, party leaders say, she would listen to all but would eventually take her own decision.
Analysts believe for most of her career in power, she will have a razor edge walk to balance her right wing baggage in Kashmir and the soft-separatist image in Delhi and Jammu.
(Contents were slightly modified in wake of the new developments that have taken place since this report appeared in print on January 16, 2016.)