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The Mehbooba story: Making and unmaking of a Kashmiri leader

Riyaz Wani | Updated on: 9 May 2017, 10:40 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Is Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti responsible for the prevailing grim state of affairs in the Valley?

The question can have many politically motivated answers. The answers will also considerably vary depending upon whether you are looking at the situation in the state from New Delhi or Srinagar.

But try thinking objectively, the question itself becomes moot: The essential nature of the situation in Kashmir is independent of the leader at the helm – albeit the observation sometimes becomes contentious as Kashmiri leaders themselves ply this line.

This, however, hardly detracts from the truth that a mainstream Kashmiri leader is largely incidental to the dynamics that is driving the political uncertainty and its attendant violence in Kashmir.

He certainly can make a bit of a redeeming difference though. But this would require both, a personal stature of the leader, and a drastic modification by New Delhi of its own image of a trustworthy leader in the state.

And sadly, in Kashmir, both the expectations have been belied over the years.

Let us first discuss the political space inherited by a mainstream leader, the role and the limited possibilities that this space offers him and how best he can flesh it out.

It has become a cliché that Kashmir is unlike any other Indian state. But nobody experiences this reality more brusquely than a Kashmiri establishmentarian leader. For him, the politics is not just a localised affair.

It has an overarching canvas with contentious historical, political and ideological dimensions that involve not just Kashmir but also India and Pakistan. One can’t ignore these dimensions as they are in active play in the everyday situation of the state, clashing, competing and sometimes overlapping with one another.

The perpetually altering alchemy and its recurrent detrimental fallout on the situation needs a political impresario with a generous manoeuvring space to negotiate an uneasy truce – albeit, not in isolation from New Delhi and of course, Pakistan.

The matter of neighbours

The problem is that the political structure that essentially governs the state of affairs in Kashmir has India and Pakistan playing the role of protagonists. The mainstream parties and the separatist political and the militant groups have subsidiary functions.

But there is one important difference between the two sets of the actors. The separatist politics commands a selfless, endemic support with people willing to throw their everything on the line for a largely hopeless pursuit of its goal. Mainstream politics, on the other hand, has a little more than an ad-hoc, utilitarian value.

But this doesn’t mean that mainstream politics has no possibilities. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), despite its contentious pedigree with its political opponents terming its creation in 1998 as “agency work”, had managed to push its political envelope.

It ventured beyond the acceptable pro-New Delhi posture into a hitherto no-go space of Kashmir’s separatism.

The party let its pro-India political credentials remain ‘understood’, but laid a pronounced accent on the resolution of Kashmir, with liberal nods to the separatist rhetoric and Pakistan’s stance on the state.

The new rules

Mehbooba changed the rules of the game. While her father, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, strategised from home, she hit the Valley’s dangerous streets. She got down and dirty on the ground, leading rallies and protests.

She mourned the death of militants, for which sometimes she travelled deep into the treacherous interiors to visit the families. She would cry at such mournings, something that earned her the sobriquet of Rudali.

She would deliver hysterical speeches in which she lashed out at the state and the Centre for the human rights abuse in Kashmir.

The video snippets of one such speech over the hanging of Afzal Guru during a 2013 J&K Assembly session was uploaded to Facebook in the course of last year’s unrest, apparently to draw a contrast with her transformation as a tame, pro-New Delhi leader in power.

“Today Gandhi’s India has brought Kashmiris down to their knees. What makes you so arrogant? Tell us what makes you so arrogant?” a flushed, choked Mehbooba asked the Centre when it refused to return Guru's remains to his family.

And then pointing towards the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, she bellowed: “And you are also responsible for bringing Kashmiris down to their knees. You say nothing is in your hands. You are helpless.”

But for all her theatricality, her rhetorical excesses, Mehbooba somehow had managed to look authentic. Together with her father who provided gravitas and brains to her emotional appeal, she managed to build the Valley’s first political middle-ground – an imaginative cross between the Valley’s mainstream and separatist political narratives, or so it seemed.

This politics stayed strictly within the framework of the Constitution but, it not only accommodated and responded to the Valley’s contentious political reality but also sought to engage with it and pursue its resolution.

What is more, by some serendipitous contrivance, it somehow related the mainstream politics to the Valley’s dominant political sentiment. The fraught experiment or “the deception”, as now people in Valley prefer to call this politics, seemed to have worked.

Lack of nuances

For a moment, a significant section of the population, including the cadre of a politico-religious organisation even started imagining an outlet for their sentiment through a political outfit operating within the electoral arena.

That was until this growing confidence ran into the familiar Kashmir paranoia in Delhi and up against its uni-dimensional view of a pro-New Delhi party. A Kashmiri mainstream political party is more or less expected to be an extension of Delhi’s approach to Kashmir, devoid of individuality and nuance. It should pander to New Delhi rather than respond to a complex state of affairs in the state.

A fleshed out politics with a distinct ideological heft is an anathema. Delhi would rather it is stripped down to its bare bones, not venture beyond a politically correct integrationist rhetoric in opposition, and when elected to power, stay focussed on providing good governance.

The BJP Government has even more drastically narrowed the scope of the mainstream politics, turning its coalition partner more or less into an extension of the bureaucracy – a party of the clerical figures going through their quotidian motions.

The tameness and timidity, however, sits at odds with the PDP, as it was known in the Valley. A party which until a few years ago effortlessly straddled the Valley’s mainstream-separatist divide and plied a fierce Kashmiri sub-nationalist rhetoric and got away with it.

Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s indulgence of this politics lent it a veneer of authenticity. But no sooner that the BJP under Modi called its bluff, the PDP displayed little self-belief.

The party snapped out of its political make-believe, jettisoned the fantasy it had so painstakingly forged and chose power over the embrace of a meaningful politics. Something which was so necessary for its own credibility and the long-term political survival.

Power over right politics

But this is no advantage New Delhi. In the process, the politics that PDP had put together to build Kashmiris’ stake in the system has evaporated, the middle-ground that it had forged has collapsed. It proved to be fake rather than rooted in political conviction.

New Delhi has relished discrediting its leaders in Kashmir and the leaders have chosen not to complain as long as they remain in power. The outcome is fatal – a discredited self-serving mainstream leader who cuts off the link between New Delhi’s narrative on Kashmir and the people of the state, something that hardly advances India's cause.

On the contrary, New Delhi’s cause in Kashmir will be helped by leaders who are pro-India but prefer to stand with their people in times of the crisis. The ones who don't preside over the killings and blindings and brazen it out to stay in power, but promptly stands down to side with people at a humanitarian level.

The ones who are not fazed by New Delhi’s perceived egregious role in who rules Kashmir but treasure the confidence of their people.

As of now the mainstream politics in the state has been reduced to a cringing and unedifying spectacle of the enjoyment of the power, albeit largely divested of the space to exercise it.

The BJP has demanded and got the PDP to become subservient, if not completely identify with its own political stance on Kashmir. It has forcibly honed Mehbooba to its nationalist straitjacket, thereby rendering her a stultifying political figure whose every statement now evokes derision in Kashmir. More so, her intermittent praise for PM Modi and her puerile invocation of Vajpayee.

The fable of the credible, strategically soft-separatist Mehbooba is long dead, and in doing so, New Delhi has not only harmed its own cause but also perhaps more than ever before given the cause of the separatists a more compelling rationale.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 8 May 2017, 15:50 IST