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Mehbooba openly bats for staying with India. Is it for real?

Riyaz-ur-Rahman | Updated on: 3 June 2016, 23:54 IST

"My father was a dignified man. He didn't change his political stance from pro-Indian to separatist and then back to pro-Indian like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. He always believed in the idea of India and was happy that Sheikh Abdullah had eventually decided to join India," Mehbooba Mufti said in her speech in the assembly on 28 May, referring to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

This was an obvious attempt by the J&K chief minister to rid herself of the painstakingly cultivated "soft-separatist" image, whereby she had set herself up as the vocal champion of Self Rule. Mehbooba emphasised that her father had never changed his political ideology and was Indian by "conviction", leaving no one in doubt that she was a true successor to this line of thinking.

"I am here to realise my father's vision for J&K," she said. "Otherwise, I am not drawn to the trappings of power."

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

Not once did she refer to her party's Self Rule agenda, which advocates a drastic re-imagining of Kashmir's relations with New Delhi in a broader politico-economic framework involving Pakistan. It seeks a constitutional restructuring, dual currency, rollback of central laws applicable to the state, an elected governor, even the renaming of the titles of governor and chief minister as Sadar-i-Riyasat (president) and prime minister, respectively.

Instead, Mehbooba's sought to project her PDP as the only genuine pro-India entity in the valley, calling out National Conference for expediently teetering between separatist and pro-Indian politics. "When Mufti Sahib met Farooq Sahib the last time before his death, he asked him this question: Why had Sheikh Sahib first joined India and then gone back on the decision only to return to the mainstream again?" Mehbooba said.

Although Mehbooba raised these points during her 80-minute speech in the assembly winding up a discussion on the motion of thanks on the governor's address, it was clear she was confronting the fundamental historical questions facing J&K. Here was a leader who has built her political stock by playing to the valley's reigning separatist sentiment turning her back on it and making a passionate case for India, something she has never done before. That too in a speech that was widely reported, and circulated by her party on social media.

Image makeover

Traditionally, the valley-based mainstream parties have skilfully disguised their pro-India politics in elaborate separatist-sounding semantics to stay politically relevant. The accent is normally on a robust agenda for resolving the Kashmir dispute as an alternative to the absolutist secessionist ideology professed by the likes of Hurriyat. The state often witnesses a shrill rhetoric about self-rule and autonomy, the two soft separatist narratives plied by the ruling PDP and the National Conference to mobilise people in the run up to elections.

In fact, the NC has moved a resolution on autonomy in the ongoing assembly session. This despite the fact that the assembly has already once passed such a resolution, with a landslide majority no less, in 1999 when the NC was in power.

Why then is Mehbooba making a fervent public case for a place for Kashmir in the idea of India? Certainly, nothing has changed so far as the aspiration of a large section of the population is concerned. Separatism, despite some disillusionment with the Azadi movement, remains the reigning creed in the valley.

My father believed in the idea of India and was happy that Sheikh Abdullah had joined India: Mehbooba

Also, conventional wisdom in the state dictates that the more a leader maintains an ideological distance from New Delhi, the more she stands to gain electorally. In fact, the gradual decline in the NC's political standing over the years is chiefly attributed to its violation of this rule. Farooq Abdullah's public threats to Pakistan coupled with a perceived tilt towards Delhi are generally believed to have led to NC's incrementally poorer showing in the polls.

In her recent speeches, Mehbooba hasn't even spared Pakistan. "In Pakistan, the government is fighting against its own people... Sunni kills Shia and vice versa," she told a rally in Jammu she attended with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April. "I am proud to live in a nation where people from different religions live."

Calculated risk

In Kashmir, many interpretations of this telling shift in Mehbooba's rhetoric have been ventured.

"I think it is the absence of her father," said academician Rekha Chaudhury. "Earlier, given Mufti's impeccable pro-India credentials, she could afford to play to the valley's large separatist constituency to mobilise public support. No longer. Assumption of CM's office has also made her responsible. She can no longer afford to be politically ambiguous. More so in an alliance with the BJP."

Rekha agrees that Mehbooba has enunciated her new politics "more clearly and boldly" than was expected. "She is basically stepping into her father's role and leveraging his politics to clear doubts about herself in New Delhi," Rekha said. "Locally in the valley, she is taking a political risk but it is a calculated one. There is time until next election."

Change of heart? I'm proud to live in a nation where people from different religions live, says Mehbooba

But nobody denies the import of what Mehbooba is saying: cautiously seeking a toe-hold for a genuine India-friendly politics in Kashmir. And in this endeavour she has used her father as a metaphor pitted against another metaphor Sheikh Abdullah, creating in the process an imaginary political rivalry between them: a rivalry between two political destinies for Kashmir. One a belief in the idea of India and another torn between an advocacy for a place in the Indian Union and a search for an alternative future for the state.

"When Mufti Sahib joined politics in 1958-59, there was no space for pro-India politics in Kashmir. Those who professed such politics were called kaafir and gadar," Mehbooba said in her speech. "It was in this context that my father cut his teeth in politics, standing for India in Kashmir".

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First published: 3 June 2016, 23:54 IST