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Mehbooba plays hardball. Why it suits her to break with BJP

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:15 IST
QUICK PILL

The conundrum

  • Mehbooba Mufti seems to be in no hurry to become the CM of J&K
  • This has left alliance partner BJP worried

The reality

  • BJP tie-up has eroded some support for the PDP in the Valley
  • Mehbooba might as well reconsider decision for an alliance

More in the story

  • What are the options for the PDP?
  • What is the situation of the BJP?

A mourning Mehbooba Mufti has got the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a tight place - eager to form a government with her and worried that she might refuse. Suddenly she seems sure-footed and confident while the BJP seems nervous.

Mehbooba is keeping her cards close to her chest. She knows that in the last one year of the coalition government with the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) has lost ground in the Valley. She needs to recover that support base to remain politically relevant. That will not be easy if she continues her alliance with the BJP.

Will she then break the alliance with the BJP? It may suit her to do so.

Read: Post Mufti, PDP-BJP coalition is a sinking ship. Can Mehbooba rescue it?

If it continues, the coalition will have to run on the PDP's terms. Mehbooba may, for example, refuse to give the Deputy Chief Minister's post to the BJP, ask for more funds from the Centre for the state, seek her way on certain policy issues and insist on modifying the common minimum agenda of the new coalition government.

Can BJP lose another state?

Conversely, some argue, it may also be the best time for the BJP to break the alliance as the party is losing support in Jammu by running a government with the PDP.

"If there is an election in the state today, leave alone the 25 seats it has at present, the BJP will not be able to retain even half a dozen seats," said an observer of Kashmir affairs.

However, as the BJP is nationally on a downward slide, it cannot afford to lose power in one more state. The party is, therefore, understandably jittery about the PDP's possible moves - thus the statements of enthusiastic support from BJP leaders for Mehbooba Mufti as the next chief minister of the state should be seen in this light.

Mehbooba Mufti has a local connect in Kashmir Valley and works hard to maintain it

When Mufti Mohammad Sayeed decided to break the deadlock in Jammu and Kashmir after a fractured verdict in the December 2014 election results and decided to form the government with the BJP, the party was in ascendency.

Its leader, Narendra Modi, seemed unassailable. People almost believed that Modi would be in power for ever. Mufti, too, thought that it was pragmatic do shake hands with a party of the future. However, first, Delhi and then Bihar, busted that myth.

On 7 November last year, a day before the Bihar results were out, an upbeat Modi publicly snubbed Chief Minister Sayeed at a rally in Srinagar, saying that he did not need anyone's advice about Kashmir. Two days later, people in Kashmir were wondering whether Modi would have dared to publicly rubbish the Mufti had he come to Srinagar on 9 November, a day after the Bihar results were announced.

If Modi after Bihar was a weakened political leader, then imagine what the terrorist attack on the Air Force base in Pathankot has done to his image and that of his party.

PDP's options

Today, there is a smaller advantage for the PDP in continuing the coalition with the BJP.

If forced by circumstances to cut a deal with the BJP, Mehbooba could extract benefits from the alliance, but would still lose support in the Valley. However, in the long run, it would be advantage the National Conference (NC) and the Congress.

On the other hand, she could explore a coalition government with the Congress.

Also read: Meet Mehbooba Mufti, the likely new Chief Minister of J&K. Cold sweat, BJP?

Should the PDP do so, its vote bank in the Kashmir Valley is likely to remain intact. Mehbooba Mufti's challenge in Jammu and Kashmir comes from Omar Abdullah of the NC. He may not have the option to oppose such a coalition as it would keep the BJP out of power.

Together, the PDP and the Congress will be slightly short of majority of 44 in the 87-member legislative assembly. The PDP has 28 seats at present (27, after Anantnag being vacated with Mufti's passing away) and Congress has 12.

mehbooba embed bharat

Mehbooba Mufti addresses supporters during a rally in Srinagar on 4 November 2013. Photo: Rouf Bhat/ AFP Photo

However, they can attract the four independents in the J&K Assembly. There is also a possibility of Omar Abdullah's National Conference offering the new formation unconditional support. In December 2014, the young Abdullah had offered unconditional support to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to keep the BJP out. He could do so again. This way, the NC can claim that it helped keep the BJP out of power in the state.

The Valley is Muslim dominated and they have never liked the BJP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) gaining ascendency in the state. For whatever it is worth, the Congress is seen as a secular national party. They may forgive the PDP for having gone with the BJP.

However, there is also an extreme scenario - that Governor's rule continues for next six months and no government is formed in Jammu and Kashmir. Then the only option will be to hold fresh elections.

The Valley is Muslim dominated; they never liked the BJP or the RSS gaining ascendency

Even in such a scenario, Mehbooba Mufti may stand to gain. She can cash in on the sympathy vote for the memory of her dead father and also claim that she has refused to have anything to do with the BJP.

The BJP would want to avoid the last two scenarios. The party cannot let the government in J&K go to a PDP-Congress alliance and it also cannot afford to go for a fresh election in which it is bound to get decimated.

Time on her side

After Bihar, the BJP cannot afford to lose a crucial state like Jammu and Kashmir where it has tried to showcase its ability to govern while managing seemingly irreconcilable political differences.

As for Mehbooba Mufti, she is young and time is on her side. She can afford to experiment and she can wait to consolidate her position. But for that she needs to keep her vote bank intact.

Modi looked unassailable when Mufti tied up with the BJP; but Delhi, Bihar busted the myth

There is some speculation that even those within the PDP who do not find her leadership acceptable would have to fall in line with whatever decision she takes.

It has been apparent for quite some time now that she is the real link between the party and the people. She has a local connect and works hard to maintain it. She knows that the party is virtually nothing without her. This was so even while her father was alive.

And she has now shown that she also knows how to play hardball.

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First published: 13 January 2016, 11:52 IST
 
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.

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