Was the PDP-BJP coalition Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s biggest miscalculation?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating Sayeed at his swearing-in ceremony in March 2015. NITIN KANOTRA / HINDUSTAN TIMES
19 June, 2018

The Bharatiya Janata Party has pulled out of its alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir. In the January 2016 cover story, Praveen Donthi reported on Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and how he came to be the centre’s man in Kashmir. Sayeed, who founded the PDP, became chief minister after the alliance was formed in early 2015; his daughter, Mehbooba, succeeded him after he died. “To understand Sayeed ... is to understand how the government of India has, over decades, warped the very nature of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, often distorting it beyond recognition,” Donthi wrote.

In the following extract from the story, Donthi reports on the unsettling nature of the BJP-PDP alliance, and the reactions that followed it.

On 3 October 2015, the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly met for the first sitting of its autumn session. The day was to be spent remembering a number of prominent individuals who had died recently, most of them state politicians, such as the former ministers Mir Ghulam Mohammad Poonchi, Ghulam Rasool Kar, and Abdul Ghani Shah Veeri. Also on the list was the former president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam.

Towards the end of the session, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and the leader of the assembly, rose to speak. Hawk-nosed and silver-haired, with heavy bags under his eyes and a slightly tense manner, Sayeed exuded the air of a disgruntled professor.

Sayeed began by paying warm tributes to the legislators, whom he had known, and outlived. He also paid tribute to the thousands of Hajj pilgrims who had been killed in a crowd disaster the previous month in Mecca, Saudi Arabia; two of them were from Jammu and Kashmir. Sayeed called for a “credible enquiry” into the incident, and demanded that people not play “a blame game on this tragedy.” He then began to recite a verse from the Quran.

Soon after he began, however, his memory failed him, and  his voice petered out. He flailed his hands as he struggled to remember the verse. Instinctively, he turned to his right to look for help from a fellow member of the house. But there, instead of a colleague from his own party, the PDP, he found Nirmal Kumar Singh, the state’s deputy chief minister, a member of the BJP, the PDP’s coalition partner in the state. Sayeed stared expectantly, not seeming to realise that Singh, a Hindu, was unlikely to know any of the Quran’s verses. Singh stared grimly back at Sayeed. Smiles and muffled laughter spread through the assembly. Sayeed was saved by prompting from some of his own party members seated on the treasury benches behind him.

It was a minor impasse, but one unlikely to have occurred in the past. The Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, became part of the state’s government for the first time in 2015, when it partnered with Sayeed’s Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, or PDP, after two months of negotiations. In the assembly elections held at the end of 2014, the PDP had emerged in the lead, with 28 seats, and the BJP followed, with 25 seats. Both were well short of the required 44-seat absolute majority mark.

The two parties’ decision to form a coalition, was surprising since they are, in many ways, fundamentally incompatible. And indeed, not only does the PDP draw its votes largely from the Muslims of Kashmir, while the BJP relies on the support of the Hindus of Jammu, the parties don’t see eye to eye even on the basic question of the relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the union of India. Since its inception, in 1999, the PDP has promoted an approach of “soft separatism,” favouring talks with separatists, militants and Pakistan, and demanding a high degree of autonomy for the state. The BJP, on the other hand, does not recognise the space for such negotiation. It has long demanded the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees special rights to the state, including some degree of autonomy.

Apparently undeterred by the gulf between the two parties, Sayeed  pushed forward with the coalition, travelling to Delhi at the end of February to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, exchanging an awkward hug with him in front of waiting cameras. Afterwards, he bravely assured journalists that this was “a historic opportunity with the government at the centre that has a clear mandate of people to deliver.” The results had shown that “the PDP is the choice of people in Kashmir and BJP in Jammu,” he said, and the parties had therefore decided to “unite together to give a government which will give all-round development to all the regions in the state.”

The bonhomie was short-lived. In early March, at the press conference held after the new government was sworn in, Sayeed expressed his gratitude to the separatist group Hurriyat, as well as “Pakistan and militant outfits for the conduct of assembly elections in the state.” It was a provocative statement, and was, predictably, met with outrage, as Twitter users took their cue from television hawks and declared that Sayeed was a “#ProPakCM.” Modi spoke out, and assured parliament, “If somebody makes such a statement, we can never support it.”

Since then, the two parties have expended significant time and energy locking horns with each other. They have fought over the release of the jailed separatist Masarat Alam Bhat, a proposed tax on helicopter rides to the Amarnath shrine, a court ruling reviving an archaic beef ban, and the location of a medical college. Many of these disagreements have had religious overtones, and some have spilled over into violence on the streets. Sayeed had claimed in the early days of the government that the alliance was an opportunity to bring Jammu and Kashmir together. But as one issue after another exacerbated tensions in the state, the government seemed rather to be driving the two regions and their people apart. Sayeed looked helpless throughout.

It is an uncharacteristic situation in which to find Sayeed. For most of his career he has had a close relationship with the government of India, working as the centre’s trusted man in Jammu and Kashmir, helping them exercise immense control over the state. He has also had his share of political rivalries, most notably with the Abdullah family, which has long dominated Kashmiri politics. But Sayeed’s style has always been one of backroom plotting, rather than open conflict. To see him besieged, as he is now, it is difficult not to wonder whether, after more than 50 years in which he has executed every kind of intricate political machination possible, Sayeed has made his biggest miscalculation yet.

In the 45 days I spent in Kashmir, I tried to reach out to Sayeed and Mehbooba through press officers and party colleagues, but wasn’t given an appointment. In early October, I heard that he was due to inaugurate a club in Pahalgam, in south Kashmir, and that journalists were invited for the event. The state had just been through turmoil over the beef ban, and the atmosphere was still tense. Even if I didn’t get to meet him personally, I hoped to obtain some insight into how he saw the state today, and his role in it.

Sayeed arrived dressed in a midnight-blue suit with a yellow tie. He had been ill recently, but that afternoon, he smiled easily, and had a spring in his step. Taking his place on the dais, he began by praising the prime minister. “Some people say, ‘What did Modi give Mufti?’” he said. “The transformation, the change, the developmental pace, it is mind-boggling and unprecedented.”

Then, he seemed to hint at some complaints. “Because of many reasons, I am not going to blame anybody, it has become a remote control,” he said. “Whatever Delhi wants is what will happen,” he continued. “Whatever they wish, they will do it.”

Just as I thought he might say something substantial about his government, and the thorny coalition, Sayeed retreated into the comfort of banality and hyperbole. I had been warned about this by Kashmiri journalists, who said they often had a hard time following his train of thought when he spoke. Some of them suggested that his tendency to lapse into generalities was an intentional strategy, to avoid being pinned down on any subject. In the days before, even as protests had raged on, Sayeed’s public statements had included: “I want to make Kashmir the fruit valley of the world,” on one day, and on another, “I want to make Jammu and Kashmir a golfing paradise.”

“India is a country of 1.2 billion,” he said. “Jammu and Kashmir is a part of that federation. It is a bouquet. This is India’s only state with a Muslim majority. This has become a symbol of Indian federalism and secularism, a symbol of diversity. If there a modern state in our country, it is Jammu and Kashmir.” He made no mention of the fact that the state was in crisis over the question of a ban on beef.

Sayeed is today theoretically in a more stable position than in his first term as chief minister, since his agreement with the BJP allows him a full six-year term. And yet, he seems uncomfortable and depleted in his role. When I spoke to Sayeed’s friends and colleagues to understand his present position, the impression I got was of a master politician, who, at the evening of his career, is uncertain about his legacy, and unsure of how to deal with new energies coursing through the state.

For one, with the change in government, his relationship with the centre is not as strong as it once was. “There should be visible development and flow of funds from Delhi, and this time it is not happening,” a bureaucrat who is close to Sayeed told me. “With Congress, he had a lot of contacts. Once, I was going with Mufti saab to the US and Pranab Mukherjee, who saw him sitting in the VIP lounge, came and touched his feet.” In the present government, however, “there is that disconnect. He doesn’t know Modi or Amit Shah. He has a good relationship with Rajnath Singh but it is only professional. Personal touch is what is badly missing this time.”

Sayeed’s age also raises the question of succession in PDP. “Mufti is not able to work more than two-three hours a day,” the bureaucrat told me. “It is time Mehbooba takes over from him.” But this transition may not be easy to execute, especially within the current alliance. A senior PDP leader told me that “Modi’s oft-repeated political dharma of ‘no khandaaniraj’”—family rule—could be a hurdle for Mehbooba. (The PDP is already sometimes jokingly referred to as the Papa Daughter Party.) “In the elections he had appealed for an end to ‘baap beti ka sarkar’”—father-daughter government—“but ended up aligning with them anyway and has already compromised once,” the leader said. Another senior PDP leader told me that on the issue of succession, “Delhi had asked Mufti to first see if there is consensus in the party.” According to the leader, “that in itself is a message to Mufti that all is not well within the party.”

More troublingly for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, there are signs of a renewed interest in militancy among the youth. Some of these new young militants were motivated to take up arms after 2010, when the state unleashed violence on people protesting the death of a teenage boy, Tufail Mattoo. More than 120 people were killed in the violence. (A senior PDP leader, who was in the party’s political affairs committee in 2014, alleged to me that two PDP ministers, Altaf Bukhari and Imran Raza Ansari, “told me that they had funded 2010 protests in their areas.” Bukhari is currently the roads and buildings minister, while Ansari is the minister of information technology, technical education, and sports and youth services.)

“In 1989, everybody was joining militancy,” the journalist Yusuf Jameel told me. “Some would even join out of curiosity.” Now, however, he says, “people are joining after giving it a full thought. The youth involved in 2008 and 2010 civil unrest have joined militancy. The quality of militancy has changed.”

Even AS Dulat—who, as a former intelligence officer, is unlikely to be caught off-guard with developments in the state—expressed surprise at the nature of this new militancy. “A lot of those boys are from fairly good families—upper middle class, qualified engineers,” he said in July last year. “So why are they getting into this? That’s the scary part.”

The militant who has been attracting the most attention is Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a handsome, social-media-savvy 21-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen in south Kashmir. In August, I travelled to the town of Tral, less than an hour south of Srinagar, to meet Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Ahmad Wani. A pleasant man with a flowing salt-and-pepper beard, Wani told me that he had no regrets about his son’s course of life. “I am proud,” he said. “He is now Allah’s man. People are with him. They support militancy. People in Srinagar wave his photos.”

Burhan’s grandfather Ghulam Ahmad Wani, a retired government employee who supported the Congress in the 1970s, came over to sit with us. He told me he was deeply dissatisfied with the present government. “Mufti wouldn’t do things like the beef ban, but nothing is in his hands now,” he said. His verdict on why Sayeed was failing was unambiguous: “He joined hands with the BJP for power.” He added: “Mehbooba brought him back from the grave and today he is digging his own grave.”

The general consensus among those I spoke to in Jammu and Kashmir was that Sayeed’s decision to align with the BJP had hurt his reputation. He has spent more than 50 years in politics executing every kind of power play imaginable, with every kind of opponent and partner, but most people I spoke to felt this latest move was a clear misstep. The bureaucrat who is close to Sayeed told me he believed “Mufti shouldn’t have become the CM this time.” People remembered his last stint well, he said, and it would have been better for him to “carry the legacy of 2002.” After that, he said, “he would’ve gone down in history with a lot of goodwill. This phase of his career is doing more damage to him than anything ever done in the past.”

This is an extract from Praveen Donthi’s January 2016 cover story, “The Collaborator,” a profile of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. The full story can be read here.