In the season of Chilla-i-Kalan
- the 40 harshest days of the Kashmir winter when the snow strips the trees down to their bare barks and the water on the Dal freezes over - political uncertainty has generated an odd kind of unseasonal heat. By now, the bereaved daughter of the state's patriarch should have made history by being sworn in as the first woman Chief Minister of the state. The chaharum
or fourth and final day of mourning has come and gone, but Mehbooba Mufti is keeping both her party and the BJP guessing.
Visits by Sonia Gandhi and Nitin Gadkari to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's Fairview residence in Srinagar have given both conspiracy theorists and the nightly news enough material to play with. But through all the speculative headlines - will the Congress and People's Democratic Party (PDP) find common ground again, will Mehbooba walk out of the unlikely coalition her father had forged, is she setting new conditions for the BJP, is the state headed for fresh elections - the 56-year-old woman in the eye of the storm has not allowed anyone even a tiny glimpse into her thoughts.
Her arms outstretched in prayer at her father's grave in Bijbehara, her head bowed in respect, but also disbelief that Mufti, her father but also her political partner and mentor since her first election in 1996, is gone - the otherwise steely Mehbooba finally permitted herself the space to cry. Meeting legislators of her party she broke down again. Of Mufti's four children, Mehbooba's pain is perhaps the greatest because of the twin roles she played in his life - that of daughter and political collaborator. But grief only partially explains her resolute refusal to take a hurried decision on government formation.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti breaks down while offering prayers for her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed on Sunday (Press Trust of India)
Her dilemma is evident. How does she honour her father's political legacy, the culmination of which was his bold and risky decision to ally with the ideologically antithetical BJP, without ignoring the restiveness in the ranks of the party cadre, most of whom believe the partnership has begun to hurt them electorally? But if she walks out now - cognizant of the possible backlash - it would be tantamount to reducing what has often been called her father's statesmanship to the level of a mundane political misjudgement. Breaking ties would be to undermine her father's acumen just a few days after his death.
Conversely, to do nothing different except automatically slip into Mufti's shoes would mean ignoring the murmurs of discontent within the PDP while allowing the BJP to set the terms of the power dynamics. Mehbooba has inherited a fractious party, where elders like Muzaffar Beig and Tariq Karra have already found in the BJP partnership a ready-made context to channel their own rebellion. Mehbooba's hard work on the ground built the party from scratch; it was her father's quiet consensus-building capacity that held it together.
Mufti took the gigantic gamble to bring the "North and South Pole" together, as he told me in the twilight of his political life
. Mehbooba still has a significant part of her political future waiting up ahead in the distance. The risks for her are different and greater. She must walk that razor-thin line between not subverting a decision taken by her father and keeping her party's support base intact. Party workers will tell you that that had the PDP not been in government with the BJP, the number of mourners who came out at Mufti's funeral would have been much higher. The beef-rumours that led to a Kashmiri truck driver being killed with a petrol bomb, the most recent collision over the state flag (Jammu and Kashmir has always had its own flag and its own constitution), the release of Kashmiri separatist Masarat Alam, the fundamental difference in approach to a domestic peace process - these have been lightening rods for flare-ups between the BJP and PDP.
No wonder then that Mehbooba is at the very least looking to reset the terms of engagement with BJP. Those close to her say she has conveyed her sense of anger and dismay at how the Centre delayed the disbursement of flood relief funds and the economic package for the state. In this, she is believed to have felt that both the state and her father were personally insulted. There are already murmurs among PDP supporters about why no one at the very top rung of the BJP - unlike, let's say, Sonia Gandhi - made a trip to Srinagar or to the hospital when her father was ailing. Gadkari's stopover may have been to assuage some of those sentiments, but it hasn't done the trick just yet.
The first message that Mehbooba wants the BJP to read is that she is not hankering after power. In other words, the Chief Minister's chair will not be lure enough to accept the status quo in the power-play between the two parties. She may be her father's daughter, but it's clear that Mehbooba is signalling that she will be her own person politically.
So, what are Mehbooba's options? She is highly unlikely to call off the alliance herself because she will not want to undo one of her father's most audacious decisions. She is as unlikely to ally with the Congress - notwithstanding her personal rapport with Sonia Gandhi - because such a partnership would leave virtually no representation from Jammu in the state government, and no political leader can afford to widen the emotional gap between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley.
She could, however, deftly and consciously test the boundaries with the BJP, push the envelope and wait for them to snap ties. She could put the onus on them to repair the cracks of the last few months. She could rewrite the rules of their alliance and wait to see if the BJP accepts them or breaks under pressure. She could opt to do a Sonia Gandhi on the PDP and make someone else Chief Minister, while controlling the party and remaining committed to the organization. Lastly, she could, in the next fortnight or so, don the mantle of Chief Minister, based strictly on an altered power-sharing understanding with the BJP.
But most of us who have known Mehbooba and studied Jammu and Kashmir for a long time tend to believe that the alliance is already running on the clock, winding down to an inevitable collapse - not now, but most likely before the end of the stipulated six-year life of the assembly.
Once winter ends and spring begins, in the Chinar's changing colours this year, we may find that the political palette of the state is throwing up only shades of grey. Unpredictability is the only certainty at the moment.(Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and Consulting Editor with NDTV. She has just launched her own multimedia content company - Barkha Dutt Live Media.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.