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Mufti's high stakes gamble

By Mohammad Sayeed Malik
December 30, 2014 11:17 IST
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Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, leader of the People's Democratic Party.Mufti Mohammad Sayeed wanted a government with the PDP (representing Kashmir), the BJP (representing Jammu) and the Congress (representing Ladakh), but he failed because the BJP and Congress were unwilling to make any exception to their inimical relationship, reveals Mohammad Sayeed Malik.

A host of political and ideological incompatibilities between major stake holders mandated to form the next government in the multi-religious, multi-regional, Jammu and Kashmir state is impeding the process of their mutual engagement.

Even so, considerable ground has been covered behind the scenes, mainly between the Kashmir valley-based Peoples Democratic Party and the Jammu-based Bharatiya Janata Party since the announcement of assembly elections results on December 23.

The PDP with 28 seats and the BJP with 25 seats have emerged as the foremost stakeholders in the 87-member assembly, followed by the National Conference with 15, the Congress with 12 and others with 7 seats.

As of now, it appears that the PDP and the BJP are quietly engaged in exploring common ground towards forming the next government. It is, however, easier said than done. If anything, there is more to divide than uniting them.

Firstly, they replicate Jammu and Kashnmir's inherent regional, communal and cultural fault lines. Secondly, ideologically and politically, they stand poles apart. Thirdly, their recent election campaigning has sharped these divisive sentiments.

That much is starkly evident in the election result: The PDP's strength is rooted in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley (which has 46 seats) and that of the BJP in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region (which has 37 seats). The Buddhist-majority Ladakh region has 4 seats in the assembly.

Significantly, neither the PDP nor the BJP who between them had shared the six Lok Sabha seats (from Jammu and Kashmir) in the 2014 parliamentary poll (including the Ladakh seat) won any seat in the frontier region comprising Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil districts.

Going by the simple logic flowing from this pattern of region-wise mandate, the ideal combination for the next government ought to comprise the PDP, the BJP and the Congress.

If it is considered desirable to have the PDP and the BJP to give sense of participation to the (Muslim) Kashmir valley and the (Hindu) Jammu region, the exclusion of the Congress (representing Buddhist-cum-Muslim Ladakh) is unjustified.

Insiders say that PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed did make an effort to rope in this triangular combination, but failed because both the BJP and the Congress were unwilling to make any exception to their national level inimical relationship.

The Mufti vainly tried to sell the argument that the ground reality in this sensitive border state made a fit case for exception. He found no takers and was left with the only option of entering into a quiet dialogue with the BJP.

The National Conference with 16 seats remains the odd man out, having emerged as the worst sufferer in the electoral combat. It lost 12 out of its 28 seats in the outgoing assembly, largely on account of the failure of its coalition government with the Congress.

The National Conference clandestinely tried to short circuit the PDP by offering support to the BJP, but it backfired. The BJP showed no appetite and there was a revolt within the National Conference ranks.

The fractured electoral outcome has produced an unprecedented ideological-political configuration. For over five decades, the Congress ideology and its politics dominated Jammu and Kashmir even while the state was ruled by the National Conference (1975 to 2002). There was not much incompatibility in the ideology of the Congress and the National Conference.

In 2002 the PDP's maiden entry with 16 seats (at the National Conference's expense) pulled the Congress away from the National Conference and towards the PDP. The Mufti, being an old Congressman, found enough common ideological/political ground to take the National Conference's place.

In 2008 the Congress under Rahul Gandhi again opted for the National Conference under Omar Abdullah.

Replicating a similar pattern is not easy in the case of the PDP and the BJP for obvious reasons. Pulls and pressures on this account are such that the PDP's sworn foe, the National Conference, went public, pledging its support to the PDP to 'keep the BJP out.' Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad pitched in with his 'grand alliance' plan of the PDP, the National Conference and the Congress to keep the BJP out.

The Mufti is shrewd enough to sense the pitfalls in taking any such course. This combination would have a Muslim-Kashmir valley face to the exclusion of a Hindu-Jammu face.

The BJP's hold over Jammu can be judged from the fact that even though its trumpeted 'Mission 44+' failed to materialise, it made sure that the Congress was totally wiped out from Hindu-majority constituencies across Jammu.

On the contrary the BJP was able to get its solitary Muslim MLA from Jammu. The margin of the Congress defeat in these areas is massive. The PDP took its own time to weigh all possible options.

A fragmented mandate is fraught with all sorts of complications. If and when the PDP and the BJP are able to create a common ground for power sharing it will be an uphill task to make the coalition run.

For the Mufti, it is a high stake gamble. He quit national politics in the 1990s after a four decade-long intense involvement and floated his Kashmir-oriented PDP along with his daughter Mehbooba Mufti.

Any arrangement with the BJP would inevitably be seen as a serious compromise with the PDP's ideology and political plank. The Mufti appears to be banking on his ability to perform as chief minister and deliver good governance the lack of which was a key factor in the National Conference's downfall under Omar Abdullah. The Mufti's alliance with the BJP is bound to drag him into unchartered waters.

As of now, it looks like the PDP and the BJP are seriously working out a stable arrangement before January 9, which is the deadline for installation of a new government or imposition of governor's rule as the stipulated six-year tenure of the outgoing assembly ends on January 8.

Governor N N Vohra and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are said to be averse to putting Jammu and Kashmir under direct central rule. A transition is likely to take place before D-Day.

It would take all the Mufti's acumen to explain and justify his 'odd' company to his supporters in the Kashmir valley, more so with the National Conference and the Congress breathing down his neck and the demoralised separatists looking for an issue to regain relevance after their debacle over the poll boycott issue.

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Image: Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, leader of the People's Democratic Party.

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