NEW DELHI -- Mehbooba Mufti took oath as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir at a modest ceremony in Srinagar on Monday morning, ending the political crisis which had eclipsed the state for almost three months.
Mufti, 56, is the first woman Chief Minister of the beautiful yet blood-soaked state in northern India.
Not only is she taking over a state plagued by a low intensity conflict, unemployment and poor development, with a large segment of its Muslim population hostile to India, Mufti is also inheriting a difficult alliance between her Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which have antithetical ideologies.
The significance of the first woman chief minister in a conflict-ridden state like Jammu and Kashmir is a matter of perspective.
For some, especially in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, mistrust of the government runs so deep that it doesn't really matter who is in power. Others are too afflicted by the conflict and their own circumstances to care that a Kashmiri woman is now the most powerful person in the state.
But there are those who feel that it is the adverse conditions in Kashmir which make the ascent of a woman to the top of mainstream politics even more significant.
Gul Mohammad Wani, a political science professor at the University of Kashmir, said that it is important to look at Mufti's position in the backdrop of growing radicalisation in the Valley, muscular Hindu nationalism on issues relating to Kashmir, and increasing religiosity in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
"A woman rising to power at this time is very significant," he said.
On the other hand, Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst and human rights professor at the University of Kashmir, said that Kashmiris are indifferent to Mufti's rise because the electoral process in Jammu & Kashmir seldom reflects the will of the people.
"It isn't significant for the Kashmiri people," he said. We don't have Chief Ministers of the state. We have Chief Ministers of Delhi in the state."
A woman rising to power at this time is very significant.
North Pole & South Pole
"North Pole and South Pole," is how her father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, had described the PDP and the BJP before he took oath as Chief Minister in Jammu on 1 March, 2015, along with lawmakers from both parties. "We have to merge North Pole and South Pole," he said.
But the 79-year-old founder of the PDP died of multiple organ failure on 7 January, leaving his daughter to reconcile the polar opposite ideologies.
And this political experiment hinges on a document, Agenda for Alliance, which offers some insight into how the two parties plan to tackle tough issues such as the rehabilitation of Kashmiri pandits, and reigning in AFSPA, which makes it incredibly tough to prosecute military personnel for human rights violations. But the documents lacks any clear direction on resolving these issues.
And if the tense moments which peppered Sayeed's ten months-rule are any indicator, Mufti is going to have her hands full.
Just two weeks after taking oath, Sayeed sparked a massive row by calling for dialogue with Pakistan and thanking militants for allowing a smooth election in Jammu and Kashmir. Then, the matter of flying a state flag on vehicles and buildings became a bone of contention. BJP continued to call for the abrogatio of Article 370, which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
In September, BJP lawmakers moved a resolution advocating capital punishment for those who slaughter cows in the state. In October, they beat up an Independent lawmaker, Sheikh Abdul Rashid, for hosting a beef party. That same month, a Kashmiri trucker was burnt alive over rumours of cow slaughter.
Observers have pointed out that Mufti was far less keen on partnering up with BJP than her father. After his death, she had the option of breaking up with the BJP, and cobbling together another alliance with the Congress Party and other Independents. She could also have dissolved the Assembly and hoped to get a majority in a fresh election by riding the sympathy wave.
Instead of dishonouring her father's wishes entirely, however, Mufti tried to give teeth to the PDP-BJP alliance. She pushed for a timeframe to resolve contentious issues in the Agenda for Alliance, more flood relief, and other measures which would reassure people that the Centre was serious about addressing their concerns.
But after three months of wrangling, Mufti didn't get any concessions from the BJP leadership. On the contrary, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav ruled out accepting any demands over and above what was agreed to with her father. With the political crisis worsening, Mufti relented after meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, last week. She told the media that he had reassured her of taking care of the interests of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Given her tough working conditions, analysts say that Mufti's only has a slim chance of good governance and effecting change on the ground.
With BJP cadres pushing the Hindu identity, the beef ban, and Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Hussain from Kashmir University said that Kashmiris felt even more alienated from politics in the state.
"She (Mufti) is stigmatized by the association," he said. "BJP is unable to to shuts its parochial mindset. Except for Modi, who uses a softer language, they do not let minorities feel as if they are part of the mainstream."
She is stigmatized by the association.
When Mufti shut herself up at her family house in Srinagar and refused to take oath for several days after her father passed away, matters of the state were put on hold. Local newspapers reported on the bereaved daughter spending time with her mother, sobbing at her father's grave, and her eyes welling up with tears when anyone spoke of him.
But then a few days mourning grew into weeks of indecision, and Mufti's refusal to form the government triggered a political crisis and Governor's Rule in the state. People were concerned how Mufti, often described as "aggressive," and regarded as less prone to compromise than her father, would cope without his counsel.
Javed Iqbal Shah, Mufti's estranged husband, recalled that if "Mufti sahib had a political guest, he would expect her to be on his side." "I found the Muftis' political practices perverted entirely to suit their personal interests," he told The Telegraph.
For the past two decades, Mufti has been an integral part of her father's political journey, who groomed her as his heir. She had witnessed just how dangerous the Kashmir Valley could be when her sister Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped by militants in December 1989, shortly after their father became Home Minister under the V.P. Singh government.
Sayeed's response of releasing militants in exchange for his daughter was widely regarded as a pitiful surrender, which bolstered the militancy that would embroil the Valley for a decade.
But this chilling episode didn't deter Mufti, a mother of two girls, from entering politics. The law graduate won her first Assembly election for the Congress Party from her her hometown of Bijbehara, where the militancy was still raging in 1996. She continued her winning streak from south Kashmir in state and parliamentary elections for the next 18 years. .
Mufti played a big role in resuscitating her father's political career after he lost credibility amidst accusations of rigging elections and being the Centre's stooge in Kashmir. After he left the Congress Party, she pioneered his comeback with the PDP and helped articulate its “self-rule framework" for greater autonomy.
Observers recall that Mufti won back favour by interacting with people in the hinterlands, speaking with the families of dead militants and even advocating dialogue with militants.
"Mehbooba Mufti marked a departure from her father. She was able to come out and change people's perspective," said Wani. "She used to be seen as very arrogant and very aggressive, but she has also evolved and gained experience. People see that."
On the contrary, Shah, Mufti's estranged husband, believes that PDP is now far removed from its agenda to empower people. "From seeking to empower people, the PDP ended up with one family centralising power. Every second relation is legislator, contesting candidate or office bearer," he told The Telegraph.
I found the Muftis' political practices perverted entirely to suit their personal interests.
Kashmir, Not Mufti, At Stake
Some observers believe that Mufti finally gave in because she feared that BJP would be able orchestrate a split within the PDP. Political analysts are of the opinion that the PDP leader is extremely wary of the BJP and the Centre, and she will keep looking over her shoulder during her time in power.
Political fortunes change overnight in Kashmir, Hussain said, as he recalled how Sheikh Abdullah had all 75 seats of the Assembly in 1953 before he was dismissed by Karan Singh, the constitutional head of state (now called governor), and replaced by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (now called chief minister).
In a coup orchestrated by the Centre, the veteran later was detained for espousing independence. A few years later, Abdullah was charged for conspiring with Pakistan to make Kashmir independent, and he spent the next decade in prison before the case was closed.
"If this could be fate of Sheikh Abdullah then what would be the fate of Mehbooba Mufti if she confronted the Centre," said Hussain.
But such sinister machinations on part of the BJP at a time when the Valley is experiencing a steady spate of militant attacks, and growing radicalisation among the Kashmiri youth, would have "absolutely sent a wrong message," according to Wani.
Modi, the political science professor said, had to be more serious more about Jammu and Kashmir, especially if he cared about his standing in the world, and the very serious threat to international peace and security posed by terrorism.
"It is not Mehbooba Mufti's political future at stake. A lot of serious things in Kashmir are at stake," he said.
It is not Mehbooba Mufti's political future at stake. A lot of serious things in Kashmir are at stake.
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