The Mehbooba Dilemma

New Delhi, April 2: When Mehbooba Mufti decided to become Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 after her father’s death and continue the alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); she was faced with a Hobson’s choice. If she hadn’t agreed to terms and conditions of the tougher partner in the alliance, the reconciliation agenda of the PDP, and more importantly of her father’s quixotic hope, would have broken. She felt, and in some way she is still in the coalition, just to fulfill that dream of her father, claim sources. It is an emotional personal decision rather than an ambitious political one, say her supporters.

In her speeches and interactions with people from Jammu and Kashmir who live in Delhi or in the state, she reiterates that until and unless a political process is not pursued relentlessly in the state, militancy cannot end. She doesn’t hesitate in praising the security forces for their efforts in the state under trying circumstances, but in the same breath, she says that eliminating militants will not cure militancy. For every militant killed, at least two of his pals in the village pick up arms, she says.

In a written reply to the state assembly last week, Chief Minister Mufti said, “Number of youths who joined militancy in 2017 is 126, while in 2016, the number was 88, and in 2015, it was 66.”

As the snow melts, militant groups based in Pakistan will attempt to increase cross border infiltrations. But yesterday’s crackdown on militants in Anantnag and Shopian districts has shown that none of the 11 militants gunned down were foreign militants. Two of the killed militants were allegedly involved in the killing of army officer Umar Fayyaz in Shopian in May last, according to GoC 15 Corps Lt. Gen. A K Bhatt. Three soldiers and four civilians lost their lives yesterday in one of the bloodiest days in recent past.

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Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed grief over the death of two civilians and paid tribute to the Army men killed. But this has become a perfunctory regret expressed by the administration. Anger is brewing against one of the most popular politicians in Kashmir. Mehbooba is quite aware that she will have to pay a heavy price for distancing herself from a part of her voter base who don’t believe in the Union of India.

Mehbooba has, since her father’s illness and subsequent death in 2016, moulded herself in her father’s image. The shrillness is gone and a moderate Mufti now doesn’t get incensed with some of the shrill rhetoric of the BJP. She is often heard saying that tolerance for each other’s point of view is the way forward. She has kind words for the Centre-appointed interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma who will be in Srinagar for most of this week for a multi layered dialogue process. But till Hurriyat leaders agree to speak with him, progress will be slow and almost a non-starter, feel almost all the participants.

Both Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, the two tallest pro-democracy leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, have been at loss on how to deal with the Hurriyat as chief ministers. Sources say that both kind of hold the same view that the Hurriyat is not irrelevant, and in the least, they don’t believe in an ISIS-like Caliphate talk that is prevalent among the younger separatist leaders. Also, the continuous arrest of Hurriyat leaders, leads to a vacuum that neither Omar’s National Conference (NC) nor Mehbooba’s Jammu Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) can occupy. That space is dangerously occupied by nouveau militants.

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It will be a challenge to keep tourist arrivals going this summer. Then, there is the Amarnath Yatra and the administration’s inability to hold panchayat elections in the state. Sources say that these elections might be held after the Yatra. There seems to be no urgency in the administration at the moment, more a holding pattern, as ally BJP is too busy with the forthcoming elections in Karnataka, watching an opposition front emerging and preparing for general elections in 2019. All that the Centre wants at this stage is for things not to flare up in the state till next year’s general elections.

Any ambitious goals like having peace talks with Pakistan find few takers in New Delhi now. With elections due both in India (next year) and in Pakistan (this year), none of the politicians on either side of the border find the Jammu Kashmir issue or peace talks a priority issue.

Mehbooba’s options are open for 2019. The PDP will probably not fight it with the BJP in a pre-poll alliance, even though they are together in the state. Her recent action of sacking state Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu, her father’s colleague and the architect of the coalition with the BJP, is an indication that she will dictate terms now in negotiations with the BJP, minus an interlocutor.

This is the old Mehbooba showing signs of revival at times. Today, while she often speaks glowingly of former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s vision for Jammu and Kashmir, the fact is that Vajpayee had reservations about her. Former head of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and Vajpayee’s point person on Kashmir, A.S. Dulat said in an interview, “.Delhi at that time had grave doubts about Mehbooba Mufti. They believed she had links with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Jamaat. As a result, during a visit to Srinagar in April 2003, Vajpayee insisted that Mehbooba should not be on the stage with him and Mufti Sayeed.”

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But now in 2018, Mufti Sayeed is no longer alive and Vajpayee has retired from politics. Mehbooba wears the crown of thorns with blessings from Vajpayee’s BJP. If a united opposition front is being cobbled in other states, Mehbooba is unlikely to join that. Nobody has asked her yet. (ANI)

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