She Maybe Good or Bad but Never Indifferent: Mehbooba Is Emphatic
Criticism of Mehbooba Mufti is unwarranted as she tries to douse flames of unrest in Kashmir, writes David Devadas.
Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti came into her own at a press conference on Thursday. Feistiness has been Mehbooba’s chief characteristic through a political career that has spanned more than 20 years (she won the Bijbehara seat in the state Assembly in 1996), and that feistiness was there for all to see.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who shared the press conference with her, tried to calm her more than once. He balanced her sharpness by being conciliatory and by reaching out. That was all to the good. But, in challenging times, putting one’s best foot forward can sometimes mean taking on opposition squarely.
There has been far too much taunting and tripping up (gaibat and taang-khichai in the local discourse), and too little united effort to overcome a terrible season of violence and opposition — opposition that has stretched seamlessly from the geopolitical to the political to the local and personal.
Trying to Emulate Senior Mufti
For the past few months since she became the chief minister, Mehbooba has tried to mould herself like her father and former chief minister, Mufti Sayeed. He was phlegmatic, unflappable, placatory and low-key. He was never pugnacious, but he succeeded as chief minister. Nor did he take on the role of a combative opposition.
Mehbooba did. In fact, members of the household say that Mufti Sayeed often chided her for impetuosity. “Bol aayiee? Kya jaldi thei? Thodi sabar karte (You spoke out? What was the rush? You must be patient,” he would say to her — or words to that effect.
However, she would still speak out with passion on issues she felt strongly about, even about arguably minor things such as ration quotas, or electricity rates.
As he tried to groom her for the chair she now occupies, he would at times ask her after one of her impetuous public statements what she would do when she had great responsibility on her shoulders. Mehbooba has evidently been trying to exercise the caution he used to urge. While she should certainly learn caution, she must first be herself to practice it.
She is after all as different to her father as Indira Gandhi was from hers. And for all Indira’s legendary insecurities and waspishness, it is for her elegance, gumption and decisive leadership that people remember her now. Citizens from marginalised communities remember her with particular fondness because her genuine care for them was reflected in her government’s initiatives.
Is the Criticism against Mehbooba Valid?
After Thursday’s press conference, much of the media, particularly channels that have been close to former chief minister Omar Abdullah, panned Mehbooba for being ‘angry’, ‘irate,’ etc. Many Kashmiris across the Valley were disappointed that she did not announce a ‘political’ initiative to solve the `Kashmir issue.’
But there were also sensible, insightful Kashmiri youth who welcomed her feisty style. While travelling across the Valley over the past few weeks, I came across many who complained that the chief minister had become invisible. They wanted to see and hear her, to know what she had to say.
Her arguments on Thursday may not please many, particularly not the cheerleaders of the agitations that have engulfed the Valley since early July. But the thrust of what she told the press is true: The agitations have been hijacked, and a majority of Kashmiris are being coerced into following a programme whether they want to or not.
CM Unveils her Feisty Side
It is also true that an orchestrated media campaign has presented a ‘committed’ view of what is happening — a bias at least as strong, as the same media persons never tire of noting in the work of Western journalists. Not only have some journalists been biased, a few have written outright lies. All of this has been calculated to not only keep the unrest alive but to fan the flames into bigger conflagrations. It is anti-national and inflammatory in intent and content.
It was about time the chief minister unveiled her characteristic feistiness. It was ironically appropriate that she did it while facing the press.
Her impatience has already been expressed sometimes at daily briefings, which are attended by top officers of security forces. She has sometimes demanded top police officers for feedback about what they have done about her orders the previous day.
Bridging the Divide
Of course, Mehbooba is at one level paying the price for the feisty opposition role she played in the past. However, party activists argue that she played a constructive role by assuaging the sentiments of distressed and bereaved people at the grassroots by consoling the families of those who were killed in those years.
People first noticed Mehbooba for having the guts to visit the families of those who were killed during the 1990s. She thus helped bridge the gap between the two fuzzy Kashmiri categories: Mainstream and separatist.
It was the beginning of a discourse which former prime minister AB Vajpayee labelled as insaniyat (humaneness) and her father, Mufti Sayeed, took forward with what he called ‘a healing touch’ when he became the chief minister in 2002.
In fact, Mehbooba has never been at home in the corridors of power. She was reluctant last year when her father wanted to hand the baton over to her. On more than one occasion, she refused the job.
The argument that she was bargaining for funding and a free hand was probably valid by February or March, but few eyewitnesses doubt that her refusal to take office soon after her father died on 7 January was rooted in genuine grief. She and her mother were devastated for a couple of weeks. She could barely hold herself together for a few days.
Now that she not only has the responsibility but faces an extraordinary challenge, she must put her best foot forward. And, although she might stumble, she must be confident. While caution and maturity are called for, fear of naysayers can be the kiss of death in a troubled place like Kashmir; there will always be critics — bitter ones, vicious ones.
Even the ebullient Farooq Abdullah had gone into a shell, not talking to anyone for a couple of weeks during the autumn of 1989, when militancy was building up and he was the chief minister. What Mehbooba now faces is arguably the biggest challenge any leader of the state has faced since that time.
Abdullah did not have the support of two successive central governments during that awful season, and the country paid a terrible price for several years. Whoever holds office now must be given as much support as possible.
(The writer is a Kashmir-based author and journalist. He can be reached at@david_devadas)
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