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Mehbooba's continuing dilemma: Power or polls?

By Athar Parvaiz
February 12, 2016 11:48 IST
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In the words of a senior PDP leader, the party, in order to continue its alliance with the BJP, only needs 'a long spoon to sup with the devil,' says Athar Parvaiz.

When the voters of Kashmir helped Mehbooba Mufti's Peoples Democratic Party improve its tally of seats from 16 in the 2002 assembly election to 21 in 2008 in the 87-member Jammu and Kashmir assembly, it was mainly because of its lesser-evil sobriquet which the PDP had earned by projecting itself as a pro-Kashmiri party, that too while protecting the interests of India in this politically volatile state like other mainstream political parties.

The lesser-evil tag for the party had originated from Mehbooba Mufti's distinctive style of politics in her early political career when she started sympathising with those who used to get killed by the security forces.

She ventured to do it just around the time when the flamboyant president of the National Conference and then chief minister Farooq Abdullah had once infamously remarked that there was no need to fill the jails with militants; rather, they should be killed.

Later, her father would coin the slogan 'Na bandook se na goli se, baat baneygi boli se (Not with guns and bullets, we can resolve issues through dialogue)' while advocating dialogue with the separatists and Pakistan; again during the time when Farooq Abdullah would make utterances like 'Pakistan should be bombarded for what it was doing to Kashmir.'

This 'striking' approach resonated with the voters and the newly formed political party gradually got close to the realm where it assumed the shape of a soft separatist political party and became akin to the good Taliban for some pro-freedom political parties in Kashmir who call the mainstream politicians traitors.

Such a perception, coupled with the National Conference's political blunders, helped the PDP upgrade its performance by many notches when its tally got to 28 in the 2014 election. This time around, the PDP almost made a clean sweep of the assembly segments in Srinagar by winning five of the eight constituencies in the city, a National Conference bastion where it had won just one seat in 2002 and failed to get off the mark in the 2008 election.

Not only this, the party finished second in terms of vote-share in the election only because of the consolidation of votes in the Jammu region in favour of the BJP -- which won 25 of 37 seats -- and the division of votes in the Kashmir region between many regional parties.

The pivot of the PDP's philosophy which projected it as a lesser evil was its doctrine of the healing touch. The party sought an end to human rights violations, an end to the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act and withdrawal of security forces from civilian areas.

By placating Pakistan and separatists with his calls for a peaceful resolution of Kashmir through talks, the PDP's deceased patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed came to be known as a statesman of sorts.

All this worked well until the results of the 2014 assembly election were declared. Despite ending up as the largest party, the PDP confronted its first major challenge since formation in 1999 -- whether it should marry its political opposite, the BJP, or not.

Sensing that the PDP found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, National Conference Working President and former chief minister Omar Abdulla, didn't hide his happiness despite suffering a massive defeat in the election. 'God help Mufti... I would hate to be in his position right now,' he told a television channel.

Months later, following the BJP-PDP alliance, it turned out that Omar Abdullah's satire-filled supplication had not travelled beyond the roof of his home and God had actually not helped Mufti though the PDP never gave it out that its partner was ill-treating it until Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's death.

The PDP even swallowed the insult from Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said he didn't need anybody's advice on how he should go about Kashmir, in an oblique reference to Mufti.

It took Sayeed's death for the PDP to spill the beans. Now everything has been officially put in the public domain. Mehbooba Mufti, who is known for her grit and guile in politics, is still undecided, more than a month after her father's demise.

She is finding it hard to take a call whether the alliance should continue or if she should take the risk of seeking a fresh mandate on the plea that she didn't deem it proper to deal with a party which had no respect for Kashmir.

Senior party leaders say that necessitating fresh polls seems to be a bigger risk than sticking to the alliance. "Time is the best healer. In case we are able to strike a better deal with the BJP, we can go to seek votes from the people on the basis of our performance in the next election," said a senior PDP leader.

Another leader said the party's effort is to get "a long spoon to sup with the devil" (referring to the BJP). By long spoon, he meant getting at least a few assurances from the BJP, like vacating one or two places in Srinagar which are under the army and some kind of assurance about the AFSPA.

However, party workers, who say they face taunts from the people every day, seek an end to the alliance with the BJP. "People are really angry about the way the BJP treated us," some PDP workers told me. "They don't want us to carry on with the alliance."

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Athar Parvaiz in Srinagar