It is almost impossible to underestimate the challenge that Mehbooba Mufti faces as she gets set to take charge of Jammu and Kashmir. She has to consolidate her position within her party, allay the misgivings that linger in the minds of her coalition partners such as the BJP and Sajad Lone, and reach out to people across the disparate state.
Jammu and Kashmir has been badly polarized by such issues as the beef ban and the recent flag controversy. The coalition has been through a rocky ride during the first seven months it was in power. On top of that, the state faces a terrible threat of what could even be a quantum leap in militancy.
A tragic aspect of the Jammu and Kashmir scenario is that there will be any number of players, on both sides of the Line of Control, who will want to stir trouble as a promising woman leader takes charge. For, if her first few months in power go well, Mehbooba will be established as a major node of political power in the state for the next few decades. It will not only be her personal success, it will also be seen as the successful emergence of a Muslim woman in an increasingly bigoted world.
The transition would no doubt have been much easier if Mufti Sayeed had been well enough to oversee the power shift, and bring naysayers on board. The chief minister had announced before he took severely ill over the new year that she would soon take over the reins.
Only time will tell whether Mehbooba will prove up to the task, but my bet is that she will be an outstanding chief minister. One of her greatest advantages is that she has not hankered for the top administrative job. She seemed happy enough to run the party and strengthen it at the grassroots. That she has matured tremendously in the past couple of years is evident in even a casual interaction.
She used to wear an uneasy smile and seem extra-careful about what she said. Now, she carries herself with confidence and expresses herself with poise. She handled tough questions with equanimity in an interview to Rajat Sharma in his popular `Aap ki Adalat’ programme last summer. The audience did not initially seem positively disposed towards her, but many of them were applauding her towards the end of the programme.
She has learnt a great deal from her father, who would sometimes chide and correct her within their home to teach her the nuances of political complexities. She has benefited tremendously by deferring for so many years to the experience and keen understanding of her father. A great part of her learning has been to balance the expectations of people in the Valley with those of India’s hard-line nationalists.
Nor is that her only advantage. She has talents that are very different to her father’s, particularly with regard to ground-level political engagement. She had the gumption to go to Shopian when the place was in an explosive state over allegations that two local women had been raped and murdered by security forces. She was pushed around by a seething mob as soon as she emerged from her car, but did not flinch or flee. Her courage that day in 2009 did much good for long term stability at a time when the then government’s repeatedly shifting stances did great damage.
Mehbooba is able to relate to common people, particularly women, far more easily than her relatively taciturn father. Since the late 1990s, she has established the party with grit and hard work in the villages and hamlets of south Kashmir, visiting common people who had suffered in the course of militancy and counter-insurgency operations. No other major politician of her generation has traveled and worked as extensively as she has.
Mehbooba stayed for several weeks in one of the most backward parts of the Valley when she contested the 2008 elections from the Wachi constituency – unlike many other politicians who tend to go to their backward constituencies for day trips before returning to the comfort of their homes.
Throughout, she has remained dedicated to her father. Over the past week, she has been tending him night and day at the hospital. From the first day, she told members of the chief minister’s staff to leave it to her; this is my job, she said. She looked wan and appeared to have lost weight after a few days there, but was confident and in control.
All the hard work of the past couple of decades will surely stand Mehbooba in good stead as she takes charge of the state government. She needs all the goodwill she can get in this extremely daunting time. If she gets that, she can make a grand success of the huge challenge before her.