Sunday, 5 June 2016

MEHBOOBA'S ACID TEST

Mehbooba (right) with father Mufti Mohammad

By-polls to state legislatures are seldom interesting and seven out of ten times, it is the ruling party that wins them, either due to their own popularity or to put it lightly, by 'effective' use of the state machinery. Either way, the odds get stacked into the favor of the ruling party all the more if they have completed less than half of their full term. Considering this, Mehbooba Mufti who is contesting as a PDP candidate from the Anantnag assembly seat scheduled for June 22 should not have much to worry about. Moreover, since she is the heir to the legacy of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, one of the tallest political leaders of Kashmir and the fact that she is herself serving as the Chief Minister, should make her task all the more easy.

However, the shrewd political leader that she is, the junior Mufti knows that her victory in the by-polls is far from assured. Though chances of her losing are bleak, waning personal popularity, deteriorating law and order situation in the Valley as well as dissatisfaction amongst the Kashmiris around the PDP's alliance with the BJP means that Mehbooba just cannot afford to be complacent. Irrespective of the results, the outcome of the Anantnag by-polls is going to have a major impact on the political career of independent India's second Muslim woman Chief Minister.

    Year    
 Event
1996
 Elected to state legislature from Bijbehara constituency as a Congress candidate
1999
 Left Congress to join PDP floated by her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed

 Lost Parliamentary elections from Srinagar to Omar Abdullah of NC
2002
 Elected to state legislature from Pahalgam constituency
2004
 Won Parliamentary elections from Anantnag
2014
 Won Parliamentary elections from Anantnag
2016
 Took oath as the Chief Minister of Jammu Kashmir

The Anantnag assembly segment fell vacant following the demise of former CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed on January 7 earlier this year in New Delhi. His daughter and incumbent CM Mehbooba who is representing South Kashmir in the Parliament has six months to get elected to either the state legislative assembly or the legislative council to be able to continue in the office. In her maiden term, the PDP supremo's performance has been far from satisfactory. After keeping the BJP guessing for months, she took the oath as the state's ninth CM in April in spite of the fact that the Modi regime at Centre refused to accept any of her demands for special privileges to be extended to the northern state and its people. In the last few months, spiraling violence, rise in militancy and differences with her ally - the BJP on a wide range of issues has put her on the back foot. The firebrand leader appears to be have mellowed down a bit, as she settles into her role as the Chief Minister; her famed ability to connect with the ordinary Kashmiri on the street seems to be deserting her.

Anti-Incumbency: The poor attendance at the funeral of her father, late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was a sure indication that the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which had swept the Valley in the 2014 polls is fast losing its appeal amongst the masses. Mehbooba tried to overcome some of this anger against her family and her party by making the BJP wait before she took over the reins of the government. However, the move has not helped her politically, at least to the extent that she had hoped to. The dissatisfaction with her regime has only been compounded by months of deteriorating law and order situation and the spate in terror attacks. Though South Kashmir has generally been the stronghold of the Mufti family, almost everyone agrees that unlike previous polls, a victory in the Anantnag assembly segment is not going to be a cake walk for Mehbooba.

The PDP-BJP Alliance: The PDP's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not gone well with the Kashmiris. Though BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have been a widely admired figure in the Valley, the saffron outfit continues to be looked upon as 'communal' and 'anti-Kashmiri'. In fact, the BJP's views on Article 370, the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), its tough stance on the 'separatists', its anti-Pakistan rhetoric and the beef controversy has left most people in the region worried. Besides, a good number of leaders in the PDP top brass are said to be uncomfortable with this marriage of convenience between the two parties. The tie up with the national party is for sure, going to affect the voter base of the PDP. Of course, one could argue that the Muftis had no option but to join hands with the BJP following the fractured mandate of 2014. But then, there is no doubt that this will play on the minds of the Anantnag voter as he casts his/her vote on June 22. With the BJP offering to campaign for the CM, it remains to be seen if she accepts the saffron camp's offer or not.

Fractured Opposition: In all this though, there is one major silver lining for Mehbooba which in the end could decide whether she passes this 'acid test' or not. Though independent legislator and a fierce critic of the PDP-BJP alliance Sheikh Abdul Rasheed, better known as 'Engineer' Rasheed has opted out of the race, there are still seven other candidates in the fray. The National Conference has nominated Iftikar Hussain Misgar who lost to Mufti Sayeed in 2014 polls whereas Congress has nominated Hilal Ahmad Shah for the seat. Besides, there are five more independents who have thrown their hat in the ring. With the Opposition votes divided, Mehbooba should be able to scrap through in spite of a strong anti-incumbency wave.

What if Scenarios: June 25 is going to be an important day in the political career of the lawyer turned politician who is trying to emerge out of the shadows of her late father and assert herself on the political stage.

A victory, with say over 8,000 votes will give her the kind of political thrust that she so desperately needs. The cynicism around her abilities to lead the state will be put to rest for the time being and her alliance with the BJP will get some sort of 'legitimacy', however limited it may be. Moreover, all murmurs amongst the cadre for splitting with the saffron camp will be all but over.

A win with less than 5,000 votes though will at least force her to rethink her alliance with the BJP, though she is unlikely to call it off as of now. At the same time though, the anti-BJP block within the PDP will get a lot of ammunition.

A defeat though will be disastrously; not only will she be forced to resign from the post of CM, she would have not option but to break her partnership with the saffronists in a bid to protect whatever is left of her support base in the Valley.

Fifty seven year old Mehbooba has fought many a political battles in the past, winning most and losing a few. However, the upcoming polls to the Anantnag segment, her first since becoming the Chief Minister of Jammu Kashmir could well be her toughest battle till date.