Tough days ahead for Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP

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CJ Report By : Sant Kumar Sharma

It has been some days now that Mehbooba Mufti lost the post of Chief Minister of J&K after BJP pulled the plug on her. May be it is time to try to find out what were the points of friction with her coalition partner that led to her ouster. Why was it that the BJP decided to withdraw support to her continuation as CM?

Some top leaders of her People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have accused her of having an abrasive style of functioning.

This sense was aggravated by a gathering of people around her who seemed to call the shots. Her maternal uncle and party legislator, Sartaj Madni, Peerzada Mansoor, who lost last election, and a couple of others have been made the prime target.

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Her detractors now blame her for listening only to these people, of her immediate family, and ignoring others who were far more competent and influential. There was simmering discontent brewing up against her all this while but the BJP support to her helped keep a lid on this.

Of course, several legislators of the PDP were also unhappy with the manner in which her brother, Tassaduq Mufti, became virtually number two in the party. He was imposed on the party by Mehbooba who made him the Tourism Minister of the state. Senior party leaders like Imran Ansari and Basharat Bukhari were given much insignificant portfolios as compared to him.

What about the BJP MLAs? How were the party MLAs treated by the CM, the PDP ministers or the ministers of their own party? Were they happy with the manner in which the various ministries were being run? It may not be wrong to say that most of them felt disempowered and not a part of the ruling dispensation.

The way they were treated with scant regard and respect by the coterie around Mehbooba was reason enough to make them feel unwanted.

On paper, the PDP and the BJP had a Coordination Committee to apparently discuss “issues” between themselves. There was absolute contempt for this committee which could have served the purpose of acting as a safety valve.

It could have acted as a forum for airing the grievances of legislators as also parties with one another. Mehbooba preferred to rush to Delhi to meet either Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh or on a couple of occasions BJP chief Amit Shah.

The way Rassana rape case played out had a huge impact on relations between the two parties. It was the stubborn refusal of Mehbooba to order a CBI inquiry into the case, as hinted by some BJP leaders, which culminated in taking a final call against her. The case led to a lot of bad blood between the two parties as PDP was seen as undermining the BJP in its stronghold of Kathua district where it had won 5/5 Legislative Assembly seats.

The case also had a huge negative impact on the BJP supporters as this brought out the fact starkly that the party was a very unequal partner in the coalition government. The Rassana case convinced them that despite being in power, for all practical purposes, it was the PDP alone which called the shots in things that mattered. This was not to the liking of the BJP supporters who felt that the CM could have acted more generously.

What are the possibilities that conceding demand for a CBI probe into the case could have led to? Would it have helped defuse tensions in Kathua district and in the whole of Jammu region from where the BJP had won? It appears the answer is yes as the narrative regarding alleged high-handedness of the Crime Branch are still doing the rounds in Hiranagar and nearby areas.

Another major factor was the way Tribal Affairs Ministry, headed by Zulfikar Ali of the PDP, issued a controversial note on February 14, 2018. It virtually made any eviction of encroachers, if they happened to be tribals (read Gujjars here), virtually impossible. This was challenged by BJP Minister Ajay Nanda as something that was never discussed in the meeting of the ministry which he had also attended.

Despite demands made by Nanda for rescinding this order as it was not in the minutes of the meeting which he attended, nothing was done to recall this letter/order issued to high-ranking divisional and district officials. The PDP may have got some support among Gujjar-Bakerwal community by this order, but it sure lost the trust of its coalition partner. Not that there was much trust or liking for one another any way earlier also.

In fact, the February 14 order was seen as an attempt by the PDP to stall AIIMS project at Vijaypur in Samba district. This was a big ticket Central project for which the BJP had claimed credit. Lack of any progress on this project had harmed the BJP and eroded its credibility. There were encroachments by tribal Gujjars on the land identified for the prestigious AIIMS project. The PDP, which controlled the Revenue as also Tribal Ministry, seemed to be unhelpful in taking this project forward.

There were irritants in the relationship of the two parties earlier too but they were papered over. The issues were never really thrashed out and they cohabited as very uncomfortable, distrustful coalition partners. When Mufti Mohammed Sayeed died, most BJP leaders thought that Mehbooba will take charge immediately. Her refusal to do so and a spell of Governor’s rule at that time had only made BJP more distrustful of her. This had also cemented her reputation as someone who was not amenable to suggestions or overtures or hints.

Tassaduq Mufti has not spoken much in public so far, and his most read comment is “partners in crime”, a reference obliquely to PDP-BJP coalition he had made in an interview to a national daily newspaper. The “crime” he was referring to here was the killings of five terrorists in an encounter on a particularly gory Sunday. Along with those terrorists, at least five civilians who were trying to help the trapped terrorists by stone-pelting were also killed.

This was seen by the BJP as PDP clearly taking a stance against the security forces personnel. And simultaneously virtually absolving stone-pelters of any wrong-doing. The PDP had, time and again, lamented the loss of civilian lives in encounters like these. It had urged the security forces to show restraint but hardly ever blamed stone-pelters for converging on encounter sites.

That interview is the only one Tassaduq is remembered for and it was seen as a stance of the PDP towards what was going on then. This was interpreted as a serious threat of pulling out of the government by the PDP leadership. Mehbooba had not said a word on this statement though it was a strong indictment of security forces which she controlled as Home Minister of the state.

This interview of Tassaduq was taken seriously by enough people at the Centre. The decision to put the PDP on watch and to wait for another trigger to pull out of the government by the BJP was precipitated by it. This enhanced the suspicion the BJP harboured towards Mehbooba that she was waiting for an opportune moment to dump the BJP.
Instead of being dumped, and face public scorn, the BJP decided to keep one step ahead of her and dumped her.

For now, it appears the BJP is ready to support an alternative face of the PDP, or may be some other party, become the CM. It had reservations against Mehbooba’s continuance in the coveted post and that is tough for the PDP legislators. The BJP saying it publicly that anyone other than Mehbooba may become the CM only adds to her woes.

It fuels anger in the PDP against her, Tassaduq, Sartaj Madni and others considered close to her, a sort of coterie she had collected around her.

For once, Tassaduq is being projected by Mehbooba’s detractors in her party as a “partner in crime” that contributed to ending her rule.