What does the just concluded 35 day long Assembly session tell about the leadership of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti?
The reply is that despite all the controversies swirling about her, she has successfully emerged out of the shadows of her late father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and announced her arrival on the political stage of Jammu and Kashmir.
The session was not an easy one for her. A slew of the contentious issues kept the House and in turn the state on the edge.
It started with the familiar discourse about the separate settlements for Kashmiri Pandits.
This was followed by a proposal to establish a Sainik Colony for ex-servicemen and their kin in Srinagar.
Soon after, the problematic New Industrial Policy hit the headlines.
The policy in its original form allowed the non-state subjects to get on lease the land for setting up industries outside the industrial estates in the state.
And then followed the revelations about the state government’s decision to initiate work on building the structures for ‘floating population’ in Jammu and Kupwara districts.
Similarly Mehbooba’s cat-pigeon analogy for the Kashmiri Muslims and the Pandits respectively, her remarks connecting Islam with militant violence, government’s proposed surveillance of Imams and towards the end of the session the aborted tabling of the J&K Land Transfer Bill which sought curbs on taking possession of or construction activity on the property transferred, unless it was registered in accordance with the law of the land.
But CM navigated through these issues, all of which with a potential to touch off the mass unrest in the state.
Though the government didn’t resolve all the issues but it skilfully did steer clear of all of them. On Sainik colony, the CM denied that any land had been allotted for it – even rejecting an NGO’s alleged exposé that the Army was constructing structures for its men on the land near Srinagar airport.
On Pandit colonies, Mehbooba stood her ground saying the community needed “transit accommodations” before they could go back to their native places, as advocated by Azadi groups.
She, however, added that even in these transit camps, officially referred to as composite colonies, Pandit community will share the space with the other communities.
New Industrial Policy, once its troubling provisions came to light was reviewed and four of its clauses withdrawn.
Similarly, the Land Transfer Bill was referred to a yet to be constituted select committee. The committee to be nominated by the speaker has been asked to submit the report during the next Assembly session.
Mehbooba was also hard put to control the situation after some newly planned yatras threatened to communally polarize the situation. Her government adopted a strategy of permitting some yatras while denying others to ensure that the concerns of both the communities were addressed.
However, along the way, she has also tried hard to jettison her soft separatist image.
Her recent speeches have been conspicuous for their pro-New Delhi stance.
Her party has completely abandoned the talk of Self-Rule, which advocates a drastic re-imagining of Kashmir ’s relations with New Delhi in a broader politico-economic framework involving Pakistan..
“My father was a dignified man. He didn’t change his political stance from pro-Indian to separatist and then back to pro-Indian like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. He always believed in the idea of India and was happy that Sheikh Abdullah had eventually decided to join India,” Mehbooba said in her speech in the Assembly on May 28 about Mufti Sayeed.
This was an obvious attempt to rid herself of the otherwise painstakingly cultivated soft-separatist image whereby she had set herself up as the vocal champion of the Self-Rule for J&K.
Traditionally, the Valley-based major mainstream political parties like PDP and National Conference skilfully disguise their pro-India politics in elaborate separatist-sounding rhetoric to stay politically relevant.
Their accent is normally on a robust Kashmir resolution agenda as an alternative to the absolutist secessionist ideology.
But Mehbooba has dared to take the risk and articulated her new politics more clearly and boldly than was expected.
She is basically stepping into her father’s role and leveraging his politics to clear doubts about herself in New Delhi. Locally in Valley she may be taking a political risk but it is a calculated one. There is time until next election.