PDP president Mehbooba Mufti is seen as the power behind the new PDP-BJP government in Jammu & Kashmir. Speaking for the first time after the elections to TOI’s Sagarika Ghose, Mehbooba admitted that even though she had been opposed to an alliance with the BJP during the campaign, this government would be respectful of the people’s mandate.
Now that your government has been announced, are you optimistic or do doubts remain on the workability of the alliance?
I am optimistic. Let’s see how it goes and what happens. I believe it’s an opportunity for the BJP to temper its hard, ultra-nationalist image and acquire a softer, more humane touch with minorities. I trust my father completely in this and trust the course of action he has chosen. He has immense credibility and if anyone can carry this alliance off, he can.
Did you have to climb down on your key demands of Afspa, Article 370 and talks with the Hurriyat?
Our position is phased withdrawal of Afspa – it would have been difficult for them (BJP) if we had insisted on its immediate withdrawal. My father understood that. At the same time on 370, they accepted what we called the special position of Kashmir within the Constitution even though there’s no specific mention of the Article.
As for talks with the Hurriyat, that will take more time. My father was insistent that we get every word of the alliance agenda right. Because we were very clear that if we could not come to an agreement based on our conditions, we would not form the government. We would then have sat in the opposition.
I must give credit to Haseeb Drabu and Ram Madhav for working out the nitty-gritty of the alliance. I used to say that over these two months, they were really like a Ram-Lakshman ki jodi! We used to joke that even if the alliance did not happen, Haseeb and Ram would remain lifelong friends because they gelled so well. They’d travel, meet at all hours, WhatsApp each other constantly. They struck an excellent rapport and a good working relationship which resulted in many nuts and bolts getting sorted out.
Would you have liked to be CM yourself?
There are some things that only Mufti sahab can handle. I am very happy to stay in the background of the government as PDP president. Of course, I would’ve liked to be in my father’s cabinet because there’s so much to learn from him. But for the moment I am in parliament in Delhi.
Do you find this alliance galling given how strongly you were against any alliance with the BJP when I last interviewed you during the campaign?
Well, that’s the nature of the mandate, so what can we do? We did not get a full mandate. And if we were to say that we can’t form a government with this mandate, it amounts to saying Jammu has no right to political representation, and no right to have a say in government formation.
If we had said let’s have a fresh election, what’s the guarantee the result wouldn’t have been the same? So, we needed to respect the mandate of the voters. We could not in the end get the full mandate because many of our MLAs suffered anti-incumbency. Plus, the NC and Congress spent a lot more money on the election campaign than we could.
What’s on the PDP-BJP government agenda?
First, flood relief to all victims. Then, a stop to corruption, particularly petty, road-side corruption, that leads to traffic jams. (Small amounts of money are charged to let cars pass and for the way to be cleared.) Then, working on the power situation, tackling unemployment. We want more roads opened. For example, if you open the Srinagar-Skardu road or the road to Xinjiang, we could have an opening into Central Asia, and the region could emerge as a trade hub. To me this is the true meaning of azaadi.
The true meaning of azaadi is to open roads, open up J&K?
Yes, to open more roads to Pakistan, encourage more cross-border trade, roads to Central Asia, Xinjiang, that’s what azaadi means. The Kashmir problem is also a millstone round Pakistan’s neck. With us in government, they’ll be hopeful of small steps that can be taken to ease the situation. For example, their biggest need is water, even though they don’t say it in those terms. So, with the Indus Water Treaty, this can be worked out.
And what about filling the Jammu vs Kashmir divide?
That’s exactly what we want to do. The mandate has shown how deep the division is. The regional divide is also in many ways part of the Kashmir problem. Mufti sahab is very conscious of this. We want to develop Jammu as an independent tourist centre. We want to re-open the Mughal road between Jammu and Kashmir – the road which goes past Noori Cham – the fountain where Noor Jehan used to bathe! The Jammu-Srinagar highway is very important for connectivity. In our alliance agenda we have provided a lot for Jammu, for an IIT, an AIIMS in J&K.
My father is a statesman and a very inclusive person. There is some keenness from the BJP that Sajjad Lone be included in the government. My father had no objection to this even though some felt Sajjad was too rowdy. But my father was very welcoming of the idea, as he wants to provide an inclusive government.
But are you worried that your opponents will use your alliance with the BJP to undermine you in the Valley?
They may try. The NC and Congress may use some separatists against us. I am aware that we have become more vulnerable against certain sections because of this alliance. But I firmly believe that the people of Kashmir want change. They want to move ahead, towards jobs and greater prosperity. My father is a Kashmiri, yet he has been a mainstream Indian politician at a time when it was extremely difficult for him to be that. There was a time when even though Mrs Gandhi wanted my father to be CM, people in the Valley referred to him as “Hindustani” in those days. So it has been a long struggle for him to win the trust of the people and I believe his credibility will carry us through.
But will it be difficult for you if the BJP or outfits allied to it ratchet up ghar wapsi, etc.?
It will be. I hope they will tone down some of that rhetoric.
Will you join the NDA?
It’s far too early to comment on that. First, we have to consolidate ourselves in Kashmir.
Do you fear that this alliance could hurt you in the way the Sheikh-Indira Accord harmed Sheikh Abdullah’s interests or the way the Farooq-Rajiv Accord in the end became detrimental to the NC’s popularity?
This alliance is not at all like other accords, entered for the sake of power. Ours is a people’s alliance. This alliance is for the people of J&K, this alliance is the real thing. Sheikh signed away the right of Sadr-i-Riyasat for Kashmir or the power to have our own elected governor because he wanted to be CM. Farooq only got a bridge in Sheikh’s name and six power plants to NHPC. We want to take a couple of power plants for ourselves and also look at the tariff structure. The Omar-Rahul alliance only gave Omar chief ministership for six years. In our negotiations, there was no question of who’d become the CM – that wasn’t even discussed. What was important was what we’d bring to the people, what kind of development package we’d bring to the people.
Before the PDP, Kashmiris had never seen accessible politicians. People used to canvas for votes and disappear. When I went campaigning in 1996 elections, people used to watch me from windows. There were militants hiding in many homes. Women would come to me and say that you politicians come at election time but then you don’t. But I remained accessible even after I won in 1996.
When Mufti sahab became CM in 2002, people used to come with complaints saying so-and-so is from the NC, so-and-so is against you. He never listened to any of that. Instead, he made the bureaucrats work. The Congress was untouchable in the Valley before we went into an alliance with them and in a way legitimised them just as the credibility of my father will do for the BJP in the valley. The Congress-PDP government was moving well on development and political fronts but the Amarnath land row was the big mistake. My father said no to it but Ghulam Nabi Azad miscalculated on that and wanted to gain mileage for the rest of India.
What have been your impressions of PM Modi?
I’ve met him only a couple of times. He’s very open to new ideas and if he likes them, takes them on board immediately. I met him during the floods and said that he should not only do aerial surveys but also meet people on the ground, the shopkeepers, and the local youth, which he did.
My father has met him only once and the meeting went well. Am glad my father let him speak, because normally he doesn’t let anyone else get a word in! When you reach such high position, your words and deeds have to be similarly all-encompassing and lofty. With Vajpayee, my father really had a special relationship. He met him this time and was so distressed to see his condition.
You’ve taken a bold, a historic step in forming this alliance. How will history judge you?
We’ve done this for the people, to heal the regional divide, to take small steps in healing the Kashmir problem. It’s a challenge for us. Let’s see what happens.