The pyre on which the body of Ranbir Singh, the second maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir’s Dogra dynasty, was not yet cold when Oliver St John, the British Raj’s Officer on Special Duty, met the late maharaja’s eldest son, Pratap Singh. Finding the latter nervous and eager to please, Sir Oliver managed to appoint himself as the British Resident in Jammu and Kashmir in the process of communicating the Viceroy’s recognition of Pratap Singh as the new maharaja.
Ranbir Singh had resolutely resisted the appointment of a Resident. But four years after his death, the Resident came to virtually rule the state – through the new maharaja’s younger brother, Amar Singh. Under the cloud of a manufactured scandal, Pratap Singh was forced to appoint Amar Singh to head a Regency Council. The Resident routinely vetted whatever went to the Council for approval. For the next 16 years, Pratap Singh was maharaja only in name.
If history is a good teacher, its lesson is that it is better for Mehbooba Mufti, the President of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), to make sure she can form a stable, strong and cohesive government in Jammu and Kashmir rather than rush to form an uneasy, unstable one. A coalition that is uncomfortable within would alienate common people, weaken itself, and lose whatever political capital it might have had.
That is what happened under the coalition government which her father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, led during the first seven months after he took office in early February last year. It was only in the last two months in which he was chief minister that the coalition stabilized to the extent that Sayeed was able to show dynamism.
It stabilized only because Sayeed made a lone, Herculean effort. Even at that stage, the Centre did not back him financially or politically. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dismissive remark during a public meeting in Srinagar – right after Sayeed’s speech – that he did not need advice from anyone on Kashmir was as impolitic as it was impolite. It was just a tiny public glimpse of what Sayeed, who had been the country’s home minister when Modi was the BJP’s national secretary (not yet general secretary) had had to endure.
From the beginning, not only did the BJP appear to be against Mufti Sayeed’s inclusive moves to reach out to the alienated people of the Valley. Activists of the BJP and its affiliates in the RSS made several moves to weaken the PDP – over the state’s special status, and such contentious issues as the beef ban in the state.
A controversy over the state flag cropped up even while Sayeed was on his deathbed. And in the last few days of his life, he repeatedly asked whether the Centre had released funds for post-floods rehabilitation. Each time, he was disappointed. Those funds were finally released a couple of days ago. Now, the PDP wants clarifications, time-frames and deadlines from the BJP’s top leadership on the rest of the agenda for governance which was agreed between the two parties exactly a year ago.
Agenda for alliance
Of course, the BJP has held dearly to issues such as wanting to do away with a state flag. These are its basic political planks. However, to push these issues obliquely through activists after having agreed to maintain the status quo (in the coalition’s mutually agreed agenda for alliance) was not just devious. It amounted to a proxy war on the state government, of which the BJP was a part. It harmed the cause of integration, which the BJP purports to uphold. The BJP not only weakened Sayeed’s government, it polarized the state communally.
Hubris has evidently blinded the BJP’s leaders to real-politic and the mechanics of cobbling majorities in a splintered house. Last year, Sharad Pawar’s googly – the public statement that his Nationalist Congress Party was willing to back the BJP – foiled the Shiv Sena’s insistence that it should lead the Maharashtra state government. That success seems to have gone to the BJP’s collective head.
By not reacting with any eagerness to become the chief minister, Mehbooba has given herself, her party, and the BJP a good chance to reassess strategies. A cold, sober look at the numbers in the assembly and sentiments on the ground would show that the cards are stacked in her favour. Two of the four largish parties in the assembly must form a coalition. The National Conference and the Congress have nowhere near the requisite numbers between them. The Congress and the BJP cannot get together – for political and numerical reasons.
Farooq Abdullah has announced that his party, the National Conference, could possibly join the BJP. The pair could just about manage the numbers, but it would be a daunting challenge politically. The BJP would find it extremely tough to convince its backers in the Jammu and Ladakh regions that its 25 MLAs should allow the NC, with 15 seats, to lead the government. The NC would find it even tougher to live down allowing a BJP chief minister to rule Kashmir. Then, there would be the little problem of a missing elephant in the room: no chief ministerial talent is apparent in either party.
On the other hand, now that Mehbooba Mufti has demonstrated that she has none of the uncertainty and eagerness that so hobbled the reigns of not only Pratap Singh but also several of the state’s recent chief ministers, her position has strengthened considerably.
She can choose from several options. One, her party could accept the already proffered support of the Congress plus four individual MLAs (who would be quite easily available). Two, she could wait out an extended period of Governor’s Rule, during which her party would gain points for standing on principle and resisting the lure of power. Three, she could allow a coalition of the BJP and the NC, which would be unstable and would surely weaken both parties. At the age of 56, she can easily afford to wait till the next elections.
Finally, of course, she has the option to return to a coalition with the BJP. It is her most likely choice, though it might take another couple of weeks before she finally takes office. Meanwhile, the state’s administration is in the very capable hands of Governor NN Vohra.