POLITICS

What The Kashmir Unrest Means For Mehbooba Mufti And Her Government

The unhappy BJP-PDP marriage.

12/07/2016 6:06 PM IST | Updated 18/07/2016 9:26 PM IST
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Fayaz Kabli / Reuters
Mehbooba Mufti (C), chief of People's Democratic Party (PDP).

The violence that scorched south Kashmir following the killing of 'poster-boy' militant Burhan Wani contains a brutal warning for J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. Her strongholds, which her PDP swept in the 2014 assembly polls, are slipping from her grasp.

As the Valley limps back to normal after a three-day bloodbath that left at least 30 dead and over 1300 injured, Mehbooba faces serious questions about the fate of her rocky coalition government with the BJP and about her own political future in the light of a virtual vote of no confidence from her constituents.

The message is loud and clear. The worst-hit districts in the latest round of violence were the four in south Kashmir: Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam. The PDP won 11 of the 16 assembly seats in these districts. More worrying is another statistic. Mehbooba's home-ground of Anantnag reported the highest death toll from police firing – 15 of the official figure of 30, suggesting that this district burned more than any other.

Mehbooba herself, always the first to reach out with the proverbial healing touch, is reported to have gone into a shell.

The rift between the PDP and its support base is so wide now that not a single minister or MLA has dared visit the trouble spots for fear of being attacked and even lynched. Mehbooba herself, always the first to reach out with the proverbial healing touch, is reported to have gone into a shell. She certainly hasn't displayed the sharp political acumen she is known for. Otherwise, the situation may not have spiralled so dangerously close to anarchy, say those familiar with developments.

The state has clamped down in the only way it knows, by pushing in more and more security forces and turning large parts of the Valley, particularly the four south Kashmir districts, into dead areas resembling war zones. The tens of thousands of mourners who poured out on the roads to bid farewell to Wani (former chief minister Omar Abdullah estimates the number to have been over 1.5 lakh) have retreated into sullen silence at this display of state power. But for how long?

Just six years ago, the Valley simmered in a summer of discontent in 2010 when young Kashmiri boys and girls took to stone-pelting to express their rage and frustration.

The question sums up the crisis staring Mehbooba in the face. But it's equally a dilemma for her BJP partners in government, in particular Prime Minister Narendra Modi who played a major role in persuading the PDP chief to step into her late father's shoes as head of the coalition government in J&K in April this year.

Just six years ago, the Valley simmered in a summer of discontent in 2010 when young Kashmiri boys and girls took to stone-pelting to express their rage and frustration. Some 130 youths died that year as the then chief minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference looked on helplessly, much like Mehbooba today.

Although, a semblance of normalcy was restored, the rage was never far from the surface. It is back again, this time more dangerously and possibly with far graver consequences for Kashmir and what it has come to symbolize for the idea that is India.

The most worrying aspect of the renewed surge in militancy is that it has hit the PDP's base.

In the one and a half years since the PDP formed a government with the BJP, militancy has spiked to a level not seen since the 1990s peak. But more than numbers, the chief cause for concern is its changed nature. Where once most militants (some estimate 70 percent) were foreign mercenaries from as far away as Sudan, today they are largely homegrown boys (and girls). These are young disaffected Kashmiris who have grown up in the shadow of the gun, a generation seething with anger and hate for the security forces they see as an occupational army.

The most worrying aspect of the renewed surge in militancy is that it has hit the PDP's base. Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph, quotes a report prepared by former IGP of the J&P police, Abdul Ghani Mir, which warns that south Kashmir has become the Valley's nursery for militancy. Of the 156 new recruits, 99 are from this area, it says. All this has happened over the past one and a half years, or to put it bluntly, ever since the PDP joined hands with the BJP in what is increasingly looking like an unhappy marriage.

The PDP-BJP coalition was always going to be an uncomfortable one, given their hugely divergent ideologies and their opposing visions for the state.

The PDP-BJP coalition was always going to be an uncomfortable one, given their hugely divergent ideologies and their opposing visions for the state. However, optimists had hoped that between them, they would bridge a disturbing divide. For the first time in the 2014 assembly polls, Jammu and Kashmir voted differently with the BJP sweeping Jammu but drawing a blank in the Valley while the PDP won the largest chunk of seats in Kashmir.

Only a Vajpayee-like approach could have facilitated the dream of the optimists. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP is still remembered with affection in the Valley for starting a peace process that was widely regarded as the first real step towards resolving the Kashmir problem. But the BJP's political compulsions of pandering to its Jammu vote base tied the coalition in knots, so much so that neither Modi nor Mehbooba's late father and the first chief minister, Mufti Mohd Syed, were able to craft a middle ground of hope.

For Mehbooba, it's been even tougher. She not only has to deal with an aggressive alliance partner determined to pursue its agenda of resettling Kashmiri pundits in the Valley, she is also constantly looking over her shoulder at seniors in her party who are finding it difficult to accept her leadership, if only because she is a woman in a deeply patriarchal setup.

Events of the past few days have underlined Mehbooba's growing frailty and the BJP's complete lack of empathy with a people wronged by history. I&B minister Venkaiah Naidu asked, "How can any Indian have sympathy for (terrorists)?'' In one sweep, he managed to disenfranchise the tens of thousands of Kashmiris who turned out to mourn Burhan Wani as non-Indian. The PDP-BJP coalition may well have outlived its utility.

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