Mehbooba Mufti: Daddy's girl comes of age

All Mehbooba Mufti, an unlikely politician, wanted was to make her father proud. She did so - by reviving his career and making PDP a leading party in Jammu and Kashmir. But her real test begins now.


Aasha Khosa | January 23, 2016 | New Delhi

#Jammu and Kashmir   #Mufti   #Mehbooba  

1996 was a watershed year in the history of Kashmir. After nine years, political leaders were returning from ‘exile’, albeit under heavy security cover. The HD Deve Gowda government in Delhi had decided to end the political vacuum in the Valley where terrorists had ruled the roost all these years. Terror groups like JKLF and Hizbul Mujahideen had shot dead leaders of the National Conference and Congress, lobbed bombs and grenades on their offices, abducted and tortured Kashmiri thinkers and writers who they thought were ‘too Indian’.

The fear of the gun had led to an exodus of politicians from the Valley and closure of Mujjahid Manzil, the headquarters of the National Conference in downtown Srinagar, the Khidmat press owned by the state Congress and its Residency Road office in Srinagar.

Gun-toting militant ‘commanders’ were the new oligarchs of Kashmir – till the day the centre took the bold decision. To break the vicious cycle of terrorist-instilled fear and absence of political parties, it announced elections to the J&K assembly after nine years.

Chinar leaves were turning pale and would soon turn ochre to herald the autumn. Elections were due in September-October and the Congress had no idea who would contest for it; there were no ticket-seekers queuing up outside the houses of party leaders or the recently-reopened party office. This election was also about the survival of a creed between violence and politics. 

Senior party leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was a worried man as he was given the responsibility of selecting candidates. To his chagrin, he found that party activists were too scared to contest or campaign as they feared reprisals from terrorists.

A desperate Mufti turned to his reluctant wife Gulshan Ara, her two brothers and daughter Mehbooba Mufti for help.
Begum Gulshan Ara had lived the humble tumble of the life of a politician’s wife; been a dedicated home-maker and a caring mother to their four children – three daughters and a son. As a dutiful wife she signed the nomination papers. However, being too shy for public life, she hardly campaigned and eventually lost the election.

On the other hand, the Muftis’ first-born Mehbooba had agreed to his proposal only because she wanted to please him. Mehbooba, then 37, had no inkling that this decision would change the course of not only her life but also of politics in Kashmir.

At that time, Mehbooba had only a small dream – to make her “daddy” happy. She had just gone through an emotional upheaval in her personal life. Her marriage to a cousin, Javed Iqbal, hadn’t worked for her. She had given ‘khula’ – a Muslim woman’s right to seek divorce – to him and returned to her parents as a single mother of two toddlers – Iltija and Irtiqa.

Mehbooba had got married soon after getting a degree in law from the University of Kashmir. Javed was the son of Mufti’s sister and was managing his family’s carpet business in Srinagar. “The environment in business families is so different; they always talk only about money. It’s difficult for people who come from political background to cope [with that],” she had once told me, hinting at the possible reasons for her to end the marriage.

Her classmates at the university recall Mehbooba as an eccentric though simple-hearted and bubbly girl. “We knew her as the daughter of some big shot,” said a Jammu-based lawyer, who studied with her and is now practising in the high court. “She came across as a good-natured person with no particular aim in life and no fire in the belly.” He had however found her at times lecturing classmates under a Chinar tree.

A marriage and motherhood followed by a hasty divorce do not make the life of a woman in any south Asian society easy. Her decision to split from her husband had also led to a chill in the relations between Mufti and his sisters’ family. She realised it and therefore shifted to Delhi along with her daughters. This helped her daughters avoid the emotional trauma of separation from their father. Iltija and Irtiqa have always considered themselves as Delhiites as they studied in a boarding school run by the Indian Air Force and a Delhi University college. Both went abroad for higher studies. 
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became the union minister for civil aviation and tourism in the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986, and it helped Mehbooba pick a job with a reputed travel company. She never wore headscarf back then, and had an upscale lifestyle.

Mehbooba had a rather low self-esteem, as her siblings were doing well in life – sisters Rubaiya and Mehmooda are doctors and brother Tassaduq was in the US studying film-making (he was to later make his Bollywood debut as cinematographer in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara in 2006). She felt that unlike them, she had not made her parents proud.

So when her father sought her help, Mehbooba was too overwhelmed to even think of the pros and cons of saying yes. “Frankly, I had no idea what it was all about – I just wanted to make Daddy happy,” she had told me soon after winning her first election from Bijbehara in 1996.
After filing her nomination, each day Mehbooba would set out with Mufti on the cold morning driving through the slushy and dilapidated roads of south Kashmir. She not only had to seek votes for herself but also for her mother and two uncles. Moving under a heavy security cover, the Muftis would want people to listen to them but villagers took care to remain indoors, not to show even an iota of interest in elections lest they become targets of militants’ guns.

Mehbooba told me once that she had no idea that militants were lurking around when she was moving on the campaign trail.
I saw her asking for votes for the first time: standing in the centre of a deserted village, Mehbooba would grab the megaphone from an attendant and tell those hiding inside their homes, “Mufti Sahib and I have come here to help you. We do understand your problems. We are contesting election so that I can help you get better roads, proper water supply and jobs for your children. I understand the sufferings you have gone through these years. Please vote for me.”

‘I understand your pain and I am here to nurse your wounds’ was the catch line of Mehbooba’s campaign. She came across as someone speaking from her heart and it touched many, particularly women. Gradually, she started breaking her journey on seeing a woman on road, a bevy at water points (called Yaarbal in Kashmiri) and those coming from farms after picking the last harvest of fodder before the harsh winter set in. She would simply chat with them.

With her girl-next-door look and humble manners, she easily impressed the womenfolk. Her wearing abaya (a long-flowing gown) and a headscarf, which she kept adjusting betraying her discomfort, symbolised modesty. 

Mehbooba had no grand strategy to catch voters’ attention. Unlike her male peers, she wouldn’t talk of Kashmiri people being trapped in the low-intensity ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ conflict, of plebiscite for autonomy and so on. She would speak from her heart about how difficult it was for common people to live with no jobs and no hope. People also empathised with her as a victim of insurgency as her younger sister Rubaiya Sayeed had been abducted by the JKLF militants and released only in exchange for five terrorists in 1989 – an early low point in the VP Singh government in which Mufti was the home minister. Mehbooba raised expectations of common people for a better life and normalcy, and never spoke against ‘gunmen’ or even the security forces.

Mehbooba finally could make her father proud when she won the election from Bijbehara – the Muftis’ ancestral place in Anantnag. There was jubilation all around; after years of living under fear of seeing gunmen – of militants and the army – moving around, women danced on streets and kissed Mehbooba for her victory. The optics of Kashmir changed from utter despondency to hope.

Mehbooba’s victory also changed Mufti’s own perception that he would never win elections in Kashmir. As a politician, he had faced taunts from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s National Conference that the Congress was a party of “naali ke keere” (worms of the gutter) and that people like Mufti would not even get a burial place in Kashmir. So far, Mufti had won elections twice – from Jammu’s RS Pura and then from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, but not from Kashmir.

That time, he didn’t know that with Mehbooba’s perseverance he would realise his secret dream of becoming Kashmir’s chief minister – twice.
In 1999, the emboldened Muftis parted ways with the Congress and set up their own party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), with a symbolic green flag. The PDP’s emergence finally ended the hegemony of the National Conference in the border state after six decades.
Mehbooba had given a fresh lease of life to Mufti Sayeed’s political career and he soon came to appreciate the real strengths of his apparently novice daughter.

While Mufti retained his position as the strategist in the PDP, he recognised his daughter’s innate quality of striking instant rapport with people. Her style had changed people’s negative perceptions about Mufti, which were also fuelled by decades of bad-mouthing by the rivals.
As such, his only son, Sayeed Tassaduq Mufti, had never shown any inclination to follow his father’s career. He had spent most of his adult life outside Kashmir; studied cinema in the US and later settled in Bengaluru. Rubaiya married a Chennai-based businessman and lives there. 
According to a person close to the Mufti family, Rubaiya continues to be haunted by her memories of Kashmir. When she occasionally visits Srinagar in summers, she does not feel at home. “She would get up in the middle of the night sweating and hallucinating about somebody stalking her,” she said.
Mehbooba’s second sister Mehmooda is a doctor and lives in the US with her husband and children. She has managed to keep herself away from media glare.

So with all her siblings away, Mehbooba had naturally become her father’s close confidante and political associate over the years. A BJP national executive member, who is privy to their chemistry, told me that when people go to Mufti with their problems, he would think for a while and often say, “Iske baare mein Mehboobaji ka kya kehna hai? Unse poochha kya? (What does Mehbooba have to say about it? Have you consulted her?)”
This was a hint that the matters need to come to the chief minister only via Mehbooba Mufti. “There is no record of Mehbooba’s interference in governance, but it is clear that Mufti valued her opinion and would consult her on most issues,” the BJP leader said.

The father-daughter relationship was perfect: Mufti, with all his air of aristocracy, treated Mehbooba as a charismatic leader who knew the pulse of the people, and Mehbooba looked up to him for understanding the nuances of political moves. She was made president of the PDP from day one. It was left to Mehbooba to hold rallies and build the party, while Mufti concentrated on strategies – as well as on governance and administration when he was the chief minister.  

So, when in the summer of 2008, Mehbooba cut short her trip abroad to return home and told her father that it was time to withdraw support to the Congress-headed coalition government of Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mufti didn’t question her wisdom. Under the terms of alliance, Mufti had served his three-year term as chief minister and now it was the last year of the Congress rule (J&K is the only state in where the legislative assembly has a six-year term).

The reason for this swift decision was the supposed transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine by the Azad cabinet. Kashmiri Muslim organisations, including separatists, saw this as a conspiracy by governor SN Sinha, who was also chairman of the Amarnath Shrine Board, to usurp land for a Hindu pilgrimage. Mehbooba was quick to sense that this issue would boomerang on her party’s popularity. The Azad government fell and the state was brought under the governor’s rule. This led to a downturn in the relations between the Congress and PDP.

Mehbooba took to the streets and eventually consolidated her party’s political base in the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir. Her gamble paid off and in the ensuing elections of 2008, PDP emerged stronger than the arch rival National Conference in Kashmir by gaining five more seats. Mehbooba’s clout in PDP was only increasing.

The father-daughter duo had changed the political narrative in Kashmir – from the azadi and autonomy planks (of the militants and the NC respectively) to reconciliation and healing touch policy. Now, the NC faced a formidable challenger – a tough one at that, as Mehbooba’s emotive speeches were making Kashmiris flock to her – for the first time since it was founded by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah on June 11, 1939.

Parallels are often drawn between Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti as the next-generation Kashmiri leaders who owe their career to the ortuitous co-incidence of their being born in political families and their simultaneous entry into politics. However, a senior NC leader explained how different the situations of these two are: Omar had a strong party founded by his grandfather to back him, not to forget his charismatic father, Farooq Abdullah, when he joined politics. “To be fair to Mehboobaji, she started virtually with empty hands and a bad old baggage. She not only revived her father’s career but also built up a movement without any backing,” he said, obviously not willing to be named.

Mehbooba Mufti’s party also came up with a solution of the Kashmir tangle – with a document on self-rule. This was aimed at countering the NC’s autonomy theory (which calls for return to the pre-1954 constitutional status which provided for a prime minister of J&K). Keeping with PDP’s line that India and Pakistan need to reconcile their differences over Kashmir for a lasting peace in the region, the self-rule proposal envisaged a porous border of the present line of control and improved trade relations between the two Kashmirs. The self-rule plank was needed to make PDP a serious player in Kashmir.

Mehbooba’s metamorphosis into an astute politician was not without controversies. She was accused of appeasing militants and religious hard-liners in Kashmir through her conservative abaya and headscarf. She was also targeted for allegedly visiting the families of those killed in security operations.
However, a Kashmiri writer, who had been detained and jailed for three years on charge of espionage (for which no charge sheet was ever filed), narrated the other side of the story. In jail for three years and with nobody to look after his family of seven, this writer was in a dilemma when he was released from jail. Nobody wanted to have any truck with him and he had no clue how to begin life afresh, he said. The very day he was released, he got a call from Mehbooba’s office, and she invited him to her home. “She told me that she could understand the miseries that I and my family had gone through.” She even gave him an envelope with cash. This money took care of his initial expenses of travel to his home in south Kashmir and food for a few days. “Nobody from the Hurriyat or other pro-azadi leaders showed me such a courtesy,” he said.

What is Mehbooba’s politics? Her rivals say she is close to the Hizbul Mujahideen and other terrorists and treads a fine line dividing secession and the Kashmiri Muslim identity. In fact, BJP, till the formation of a coalition government with PDP, was openly saying that Mehbooba was close to Kashmiri secessionists. During the campaigning for the 2014 elections, BJP had accused Mufti of being hand in glove with separatists and especially the right-wing Jamat-e-Islami. 

Former IB and RAW chief AS Dulat in his book, ‘Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years’, writes that the BJP was so wary of Mehbooba’s links with secessionists that prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had given instruction that Mehbooba must not be seen on the dais with him during his historic visit to Kashmir in 2003.
“We suspected her of being close to militants,” said a BJP top functionary in Delhi. “But, frankly, she has not broken any protocol on this since we came to form the government together last year – she is smart enough to know the implications of such an action for her career,” he added.
He also admitted that the allegations were based on hearsay and “convenient, election-time talk”.

Today, in the second week of January, Mehbooba is a daughter distraught with grief over her father’s death, and has refused to take oath as chief minister to mourn her loss. This all-too-human vulnerability has brought her closer to people. “Allah should bless everyone with such a daughter,” reads a Facebook post from Kashmir.

However, this is also being seen as her “buying time either to re-bargain with the BJP” or possibly seek a new ally – Congress. The second theory even gained some credence when Congress chief Sonia Gandhi came down to offer her condolences. BJP leaders in Delhi scotch rumours that Mehbooba was always against joining hands with BJP for government formation as against Mufti’s inclination for a tie-up.

“She was one of the members of the BJP-PDP coordination committee that worked for two months to chart out a common agenda for the coalition government to work. Even after that she has never given us a feeling that she does not like BJP,” a national executive member told Governance Now.

Mehbooba was an understudy of her father, who was a hard task master to her, for 20 years. She was made to work the most. Mehbooba once told me that her daughters often got angry with their grandfather for overloading her with work. “They now fight with daddy,” she had said with an amused expression.

Over the years Mehbooba has come to like making contact with people as the best part of her job. “I love speaking to people in rallies and never feel tired even after long travel and speaking at more than one rally,” she had told me. “By the end of the day I feel rejuvenated – people are important in politics.”

As an MP she showed not much interest in parliamentary workings. “Initially I tried to raise issues but soon realised that it is all about lung power there too.” She travels to Delhi only to attend the parliament session and has not shown interest in national politics so far. “For me Delhi is a camp office; Kashmir is where I am required for a lot of work,” she said.

However, as a Muslim woman leader from Kashmir, Mehbooba has always been trusted by the political establishment in Delhi. The Narendra Modi government sent her as head of the Indian Haj delegation to Saudi Arabia in 2015; UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi chose her to play hostess to the Commonwealth parliamentarians meet in Delhi in 2007. 

Mehbooba’s real test begins now – after her father is gone. “Nobody knew the real Mehbooba till Mufti Sahib was there, since both complemented each other as personalities and also in their styles of working. It’s only now that we will know her capabilities as an administrator,” a senior PDP member told Governance Now over telephone from Srinagar.

Her first move – to delay the oath-taking as chief minister that has led to the governor’s rule in J&K – hasn’t gone down well with politicians, including those from her own party. “Sometimes, it may be seen as her weakness since leaders are supposed to take charge of the situation even under grave personal tragedies,” a Congress leader from Jammu said.

A friend of Mehbooba’s family told me that she would eventually face resistance from other senior leaders of her own party if she does not take charge soon. “Maybe not now, but eventually some ambitious leaders will challenge her supremacy, and she cannot always play an emotional game,” he said.

He also said that Mehbooba’s trait of going by her instincts may not help her. “Mufti Sahib had not been keeping good health for a long time and the strain was visible on his face. But he wasn’t confident enough of his daughter’s capabilities to hand over the chief ministership to her. He always believed Mehbooba was too naïve to hold administrative responsibilities,” he said.

Also, Mehbooba’s politics has been Kashmir-centric so far. Despite efforts and Mufti’s old links as a Congress leader, the PDP hasn’t been able to make inroads into the Hindu-dominant Jammu region. This is in stark contrast to the rival NC, which has pockets of support in Jammu too. Unless it takes roots in Jammu, Mehbooba’s party may not be able to emerge as a leading political player in this crucial border state.

(The story appears in the January 16-31, 2016 issue)



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