Post Mufti, PDP-BJP coalition is a sinking ship. Can Mehbooba rescue it?
Mehbooba Mufti, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's daughter, is all set to become the restive J&K's first woman chief minister. But it's not going to be a smooth ride.
Although senior PDP leaders claim that "Mehbooba is the obvious choice for the chief minister's post", the party is riven with "groupism" and "infighting". If this wasn't headache enough, her coalition partner, the BJP, isn't really fond of her either.
Although, according to a source privy to the developments, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked the BJP's state leadership not to raise objections to Mehbooba's elevation, it is going to be a "daunting task" for her to keep the coalition on track.
"It is no secret that there are serious tensions between the two ideologically divergent coalition partners. It was Mufti Sayeed's acumen and foresight that kept the turbulence under control," the source said.
"It's my worry whether Mehbooba can steer the sinking ship ship to safety. It's a huge challenge to keep the regions of Kashmir and Jammu together at this moment," the source added.
Of late, two of the PDP's top leaders, Muzaffar Hussain Beigh and Tariq Hamid Qarra, have been publicly expressing their displeasure about the functioning of their party and its approach in dealing with key issues.
Worse, several leaders of the BJP are "uneasy" with Mehbooba's political mannerisms and her "soft-separatist" image. In the past, Mufti has been seen attending condolence meetings at the homes of slain militants and expressing sympathies with their families in many parts of south Kashmir.
However, this won't matter as long as the central government is comfortable with the arrangement. After all, as a prominent Kashmir watcher said, on the condition of anonymity, "it is always New Delhi which appoints the chief minister in J&K".
"See, political posturing apart, all chief ministers in J&K are appointees of New Delhi. Only after New Delhi's official stamp and green signal is a chief minister appointed," he said.
This doesn't mean that Mehbooba won't face challenges locally.
To the utter surprise of many a political pundit, Mufti Sayeed had stitched up a coalition government with the Hindu nationalist BJP after the voters threw up a hung assembly in last year's election.
The PDP had won 28 of the 87 seats, mostly from the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, while the BJP got all its 25 seats from the Hindu-dominated Jammu region.
Sayeed, in an exclusive interview with this writer last year, had described the coalition as a "paradigm shift" in J&K's polity.
The partnership though was anything but smooth. It was put to test almost immediately when Sayeed declared that for a lasting solution to the Kashmir dispute, "reconciliation with Pakistan" was inevitable and that the pro-Azadi alliance had to be taken on board.
He even credited Pakistan and Kashmiri militants for "ensuring a peaceful atmosphere" for the smooth conduct of the election. Such statements created an impression that his party had a soft corner for the pro-Azadi sentiment.
Mehbooba's challenge: public perception that the PDP has 'surrendered' its principles to the BJP
But the partnership with the BJP endured as it was seen as a testament to Sayeed being a "proud Indian by conviction", whose aim was to completely integrate J&K into the Indian Union.
Many analysts believe that under Sayeed, the coalition government would have completed its full term despite differences between the two partners.
The coalition, as one analyst puts it, has been a "working relationship" in a "marriage of inconvenience".
But it may not be the same under Mehbooba.
Tensions between PDP and BJP leaders have been rising over the past 10 months and with Mufti Sayeed no longer on the scene, they might be harder to contain.
One contentious issue is the flying of the state flag. Several senior PDP ministers have been displaying the flag at official meetings and flying it alongside the Indian tricolour flag on their vehicles as well.
The BJP has objected to this. In fact, a leader of the party Farooq Khan, a former police officer with a dubious record, has moved a division bench of the high court against the flying of the state flag.
Khan has argued that hoisting of the state flag alongside the tricolour was an "act of insurgency" and an attempt to "create another nation out of a nation".
Khan's petition came after a single bench of the high court directed all constitutional authorities in the state to hoist the state flag.
Article of faith
Another thorny issue is Article 370. Ideologically, the BJP insists on "ek nishan, ek vidhan, ek pradhan" - one flag, one constitution, one sovereign head for the entire country - and wants to scrap Article 370, which grants special status to J&K within the Indian Union.
The party, however, was seen to have made a compromise of sorts on its ideological position by agreeing to the "Agenda for Alliance" with the PDP.
The document stated that "while recognising the different positions and appreciating the perceptions the BJP and PDP have on the constitutional status of J&K considering the political and legislative realities, the present position will be maintained on all the constitution provisions pertaining to J&K including the special status in the Constitution of India".
The compromise was mutual, with the PDP seemingly letting go of its slogan of "self-rule" for J&K.
Indeed, there is a perception in Kashmir that the PDP has "surrendered" its ideology and principles before the vocal and powerful BJP. The government is largely seen as an "unholy alliance".
Analysts have been arguing that allying with the BJP could be "political suicide" for the PDP. Only an "astute" politician of Mufti Sayeed's calibre could have take such a risk and prevailed. It may not be as easy for Mehbooba.
In choppy waters
Many analysts say that the PDP-BJP government was already a "sinking boat" and Sayeed's death has only made the waters choppier.
The divide along regional and religious lines in J&K has widened in recent times, especially after the last assembly election when the valley went with the PDP while Jammu voted overwhelmingly for the BJP.
Today, Kashmir seems angrier than ever. The sense of alienation runs deep. Some argue that Kashmir is witnessing "galloping radicalisation" while an increasing number of youth are being drawn to the armed rebellion.
Showdown: PDP leaders fly J&K flag; BJP fumes and calls it an 'act of insurgency'
On the other hand, after the BJP swept Jammu in the 2014 election, the Hindutva forces affiliated with the RSS have become more vocal and violent. Recently, Sangh affiliates organised rallies in Jammu, where their supporters brandished weapons. They also performed Shastra Puja, or the worship of weapons.
In a nutshell, the road ahead for Mehbooba is going to be quite difficult. Steering the coalition government on it will test her political acumen and will. How she fares would not only shape her legacy but the political future of J&K as well.