Touch-and-Go

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In 2015, Mufti Sayeed took two months to negotiate a common minimum programme with BJP. Ten months later, his daughter spent a quarter in seeking an assurance that the common agenda would be implemented. As Ms Mufti is preparing to be Kashmir history’s first women ruler, Masood Hussain reports the political theatre that worked uninterrupted for three months and eventually helped the alliance survive after a series of debacles

Modi-Mufti-meet

The ‘bizarre, roller coaster’, as NC leader Omar Abdullah has termed it, is over. PDP president Ms Mehbooba Mufti, already a Lok Sabha member, is the leader of party legislative party. By early April, she is anticipated to take over as Kashmir’s new Chief Executive, thus ending governor N N Vohra’s rule since January 7.

As Chief Minister, Ms Mufti will be Kashmir’s first ever women ruler in the last one millennium – 1000 years, if not more. But her ascend to throne, after a protracted process, was apparently unprecedented and theatrical. Nothing much happened during the 40-days mourning of Mufti Sayeed. As real politics took over, PDP initially wanted to review the common minimum programme (CMP), the Agenda of Alliance, and later resorted to loud thinking about a number of initiatives, envisaged in the CMP, for early implementation.

Eventually when the ice was broken after Ms Mufti met the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 22, talk about CBMs faded into oblivion. “I have been assured full support by the Prime Minister,” Ms Mufti told her lawmakers, minutes after being elected as the legislative party leader on March 24, while talking about “certain J&K-specific” political and economic CBMs she had suggested to “create atmosphere for new dispensation to take over.” She avoided detailing anything.

Reaction was obvious. “She wanted to be seen as a rebel, immune to the temptation of the same power that her father had succumbed to,” Omar Abdullah wrote on Facebook. “What started as Mehbooba Mufti’s claim for the higher moral ground has clearly ended in the same old territory of serious contradictions – by now an all too familiar hallmark of her politics and that of her party’s.”

“I think, she was clear from day one. The day we authorized her to take decision on government formation, she told us that she will decide to take over only when she is personally satisfied,” said PDP spokesman Naeem Akhter. “After she met the Prime Minister and BJP president, she publicly said she is personally satisfied.” He said BJPs executive has endorsed the Agenda of Alliance which is satisfying.

Ms Mufti had a meeting with Amit Shah, BJP President on March 18, before her one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi later. In between, she had angrily left Delhi and flown to Srinagar for announcing end of the ‘alliance’. But then “some people” intervened and salvaged the alliance.

The fact is that the two parties had taken the “process” to the extremes of possibility in last one month. The “north pole – south pole” alliance that had grown “unpopular” in Kashmir and in Jammu, literally fell flat at least thrice, individuals aware of the happenings told Kashmir Life. Every time, it reincarnated.

On February 18, evening when Omar Abdullah announced the arrival of a charter aircraft at Srinagar airport on twitter, it was not part of reconciliation process between BJP and PDP. The aircraft was carrying Ram Madhav, BJP national general secretary, for negotiating separation.

With Ms Mufti out of the extended 40-days mourning, a PDP point-man had spent a few days in Delhi tracing the mighty in the power corridors. Unable to trace the real people and not able to talk on issue that mattered most to the small regional party, PDP decided to call it off. Insiders said both the parties had agreed to that. Both sides had their own reasons and were carrying their own axes to grind. Ram Madhav, who was busy for many days in Assam, finally flew with a mandate to convey PDP boss his party’s inability to go ahead.

Madhav found her different. He acknowledged to some party leaders that she was sincere, honest and straight forward and not “unpredictable”. He took off saying BJP can “work with her.”

In the immediate follow up, PDP flew its representative to Delhi. Detailed meetings were held at the level of Defence, Home and Power Ministers. The meetings were not only positive but “highly encouraging”, according to PDP insiders.

In Srinagar, Ms Mufti was encouraged by the response she was getting. She had told in public meetings that she requires certain steps for creating an enabling environment. Her insistence on “tangible results” triggered a lull. As the silence ruled the communication set up, PDP decided to call it a day. The two sides met and agreed that they could call it off. But it ended at the crisis: who will bell the cat?

Unlike all other leaders in the BJP, it was Finance Minister Arun Jaitely who was highly positive. Part of his positivity was because of the feedback he was receiving from the state BJP in Jammu, the Hindu heart-land where Jaitely’s in-laws lived.

After taking his party on board, Jaitely – given his “understanding and sympathy” for the state, agreed to make a special reference to J&K in his budget, announce certain things which will push the process forward. Excited, the PDP remained hooked to the TV on February 28, the day coinciding with Ms Mufti’s membership drive to Islamabad. In anticipation of the budget, the party had indicated to media that budget would be the real game-changer.

Ram Madhav with state BJP leaders

Ram Madhav with state BJP leaders

Budget had many things like doubling of resource devolution from the central pool to Rs 9000 crore and a specific part of resource by debit to Rs 80,000 crore package that Modi announced in Srinagar in November.

That morning Ms Mufti had praised Modi for trying to be different than his predecessor on peacemaking front. “I don’t want mere chair but I want peace in the state. We joined hands (with BJP) earlier not for the CM’s chair but for the welfare of people,” Ms Mufti told a modest crowd in Islamabad. “That was our challenge and that will remain so.”

But budget had nothing really big that would fit in “tangible” initiatives. PDP point-man was back in Srinagar. Again, Fairview went cold on the alliance.

Literally salvaging the alliance from the brinks of the disaster, many days later, an “emissary” emerged. He suggested Fairview that the alliance has the chance of survival. Taking the suggestion seriously, PDP man flew back to Delhi, this time for a breakfast meeting with Jaitely. The understanding was simple: while winding up the debate on budget, he will make reference to J&K. The talk will walk and eventually restore normality between the estranged bedfellows.

Unlike past, it happened.

“We want to implement Rs 80,000 crore economic package of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for equitable development of the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir,” Jaitley said on March 15 in the Parliament. He said the government was committed to set up institutions like IIT, IIM and AIIMS in the state.

“We stand fully committed as far as the agenda of governance is concerned with reference to J&K,” Jaitely told after the BJP’s national executive meeting passed a political resolution that emphasized party’s commitment to the “agenda of governance” in J&K. Same night, when Jaitely was on a TV show, he said “Mufti was a visionary”.

Waiting, PDP responded positively. For the first time, PDP saw future in the “unpopular alliance” it wanted to end. Ms Mufti was airborne the next morning. After a day, she was seen boarding a private car in the Kashmir House and driving to Khan Market where another car picked her up. She was on her way to a meeting with BJP President Amit Shah. The meeting reportedly went very well.

Insiders said her series of meetings in those few days were aggressive but positive. With just a piece of paper, she had told in one meeting, she can not rule J&K. She had suggested her ally two options: first to see which items listed in CMP can be taken up and second, if the entire document is unworkable, the two parties should sit and arrive at something that will be implementable. When challenged, in one meeting, she even said that she will not mind if her party breaks apart but she will not compromise on whatever the two parties have agreed upon.

For unknown reasons, in the evening on March 18, the process was torpedoed, literally. Talking to reporters in Delhi, Ram Madhav said the “stalemate continues” as a government cannot be formed “on the basis of conditions”.

“The first thing is that no new demand is acceptable to us and the second thing is that if there are new demands then it can be taken up once a new government takes over,” Madhav was quoted saying. “Whatever new has to be done will be done after government formation. After all, a state government always has a right to make demands to the centre.”

Though the next step was a meeting with the Prime Minister, it did not take place. PDP took the statement as insult. All engagements were cancelled. Ms Mufti and her point man boarded the first flight back home. The plan was to address a news conference on Saturday, March 19, and announce the formal death of the alliance.

On the eve of Ms Mufti’s Delhi meeting, the governor N N Vohra in Jammu on March 17, had presided over a meeting of top army generals suggesting the Northern Command would hand over 16.30 acres of Jammu University land, 212 acres of land at Tatoo Grounds, Srinagar, 456.60 kanals of land at High Grounds, Islamabad and lower Khurba Thang in Kargil to the state government. It will happen before March 31, an official statement said. It addressed people but did not help the politics.

On March 20, Congress reacted in Srinagar insisting that BJP at the centre might be trying to divide parties to get the numbers that will suit its rule. A day later on March 21, Omar met governor and talking about horse-trading.

Sulking and restricted to Fairview, Ms Mufti was advised against the idea of making the issue public. The “emissary” reappeared on the scene. Raj Bhawan conveyed Ms Mufti to fly to Delhi for a meeting with the Prime Minister on March 22. The one-on-one meeting was termed “positive” and “satisfying” by Ms Mufti.

“When you meet prime minister of the nation and discussions held are positive, then naturally we find more ways to the solutions of the problems faced by people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Ms Mufti told reporters after her meeting at the 7-RC Road.

Excited, a top PDP leader was quoted by media for detailing the calendar of subsequent events which included the date of oath-taking. It shocked BJP. Madhav angrily reacted. He said Ms Mufti was told by Prime Minister that BJP was the “appropriate forum to talk to, for arriving at any consensus on government formation.” He also said that after PDP will elect its legislative party leader, the two parties would sit for a “final round of negotiations” to form the government.

The punch embarrassed PDP. By then, Ms Mufti was home planning her meeting. Madhav then reconciled and issued another statement on March 23. “We are of the view that whatever Mufti Sahab left behind should be taken forward and we are willing to take it forward in the same form,” Madhav said while terming the Modi-Mehbooba meeting as “extremely cordial”. He denied their ally raised any new demand and insisted the Prime Minister assured support.

By the end of the day, the alliance survived for symbiotic reasons. Now the two sides would go for a series of meetings and then the government will be in place. But the issue is, as Omar points out, what were the gains for extending political uncertainty for so long.

“When Mufti Sayeed negotiated the Agenda of Alliance for two months, he took over with just a piece of paper,” explains one senior PDP leader. “His daughter made BJP responsible for its implementation as a political party.” The leader said that she was assured of full support by the Prime Minister. “May be things start happening within three months after the new government takes oath of office.”

But many PDP top leaders said that various initiatives that took place during governor N N Vohra rule were part of the same process that was going on, far away from media glare. “Forget what Omar claims, initiatives like Tatoo Ground, inclusion of two smart cities in the state and quick release of compensation were issues that we initiated and followed,” one leader said.

Ms Mufti, herself, was unrevealing even in the meeting that elected her as the leader in the house. Kashmir Life wanted her version of the story. Her aides said since she is flying to Jammu for a meeting, an interview at a short notice was not manageable. But an aide spoke explaining certain things.

“The protracted process elevated the CMP from being a two party agenda to a national agenda,” the aide said, insisting that BJP has taken the agenda to its national executive and approved it. “The president was assured of its implementation by the highest office in the country.”

Mehbooba addressing her party law makers

Mehbooba addressing her party law makers

The aide said she has taken care of the concerns she had and is fairly assured. “The fact is that we are allies of BJP and we have to work for next five years together and we do not believe in embarrassing or belittling each other,” he said. “We have a common agenda and it will be implemented gradually but surely.” The aide said there were challenges and even existential issues for the party but it somehow survived. “MLAs being restive and unwilling for immediate next election is understandable,” the aide said when asked about the possible tensions within PDP.

Ms Mufti, insiders said, remained clear on one issue that in such a political impasse, parties do face problems. She told her cadres in Jammu and in Srinagar that she would prefer to stay alone if the herd leaves her but would not assume power “for the heck of it.”

The herd actually started going astray. Barring a few, all PDP lawmakers – some for personal reasons, some for the reasons of their mandate and constituency and some “for the heck of it” wanted to be powerful. Not a single lawmaker, including the few who remained loyal to Fairview, were supportive of a fresh election within less than a year. “What we will hawk in our constituency to get the votes,” one lawmaker said. “And who will give me resources to do that?”

This craving for power had led them to opt for an interesting innovation. They were hawking the idea of setting up a PDP government with the ally and on the CMP that party founder Mufti Sayeed has chosen. The only difference would have been, they would argue within the group, that Ms Mufti would control the party and some other person would head the government. Reports from Delhi suggested that most of them were in touch with BJP but the right wing party “did not encourage them at all.” Even a young businessman is talked about in PDP circles for trying his luck to be the broker.

Interestingly, what these lawmakers did not know was that they were being followed by both state and central intelligence sleuths. Fairview was getting almost daily reports about their activities. Some of the people who were part of all the deliberations were emptying their stomachs in Fairview, every evening, sources said.

“Madam has understood more politics in these two months than she might have in last 15 years,” a PDP worker said. “But she is unlikely to punish anybody for that because party is more important.”

Any change in her cabinet is unlikely. Despite knowing everything, she had decided to keep the flock together. On March 25, when she flew to Jammu for meeting governor, PDP two heavy-weights MPs Muzaffar Hussain Beig and Tariq Hameed Karra accompanied her. Neither of the two was looking eye to eye and in fact Karra had long been considered an outcaste.

This is expected to change the power balance within the party. A section of the influential who were so keen to “control” would have a counterbalance now.

But the tensions remain. If a government is set up with such a great difficulty, how long will it last?  Trust deficit will soon start showing. So the game is still open for all and everybody.

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