Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: A Tough Run Ahead for Kashmir's Old Warhorse

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Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: A Tough Run Ahead for Kashmir's Old Warhorse

PDP patron Mufti Mohammed Sayeed will take oath as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister for the second time today.

New Delhi: 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was campaigning in Jammu and Kashmir during the state elections, one of his most quotable slogans was asking the people to liberate themselves not only from "baap-beta'' (father-son) but also "baap-beti'' (father-daughter). The former reference was to then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his father, Farooq; the latter reference was to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti, chief patron and president respectively of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).  
The PM was in Jammu for the swearing-in of Mr Sayeed, 79, as the Chief Minister of the state with the BJP as a partner in a coalition government. In the state election held in December, the BJP swept Jammu's Hindu heartland while the PDP won most of its 28 seats from the Muslim-majority Valley.

For Mr Sayeed, it is an affirmation of his legendary survival instincts that he has managed to negotiate an alliance many thought was impossible. Prior to the election - in fact, even till a few days ago - the BJP and the PDP seemed divided by diametrically opposing positions on numerous issues to do with security, the state's autonomy and relations with Pakistan.

This is Mr Sayeed's second stint as Chief Minister - he held the post between 2002 and 2005, in a rotational arrangement with ally Congress. But this time, he has fulfilled a life-long ambition - to emerge as a dominant force in Kashmiri politics, a position held by the Abdullah family for decades. In fact, it is a strange coincidence that links almost every major twist and turn in Kashmir's politics to Mr Sayeed's over five-decade-long political career. He was the face of Congress in Kashmir till the late 1980s, when he went over to the Janata Dal at the Centre, which was headed by VP Singh in 1989. Mufti later rejoined the Congress and now shares political space with the BJP.

Mr Sayeed's early life was typical of the new bourgeoisie that emerged in Kashmir in the 1950s. He graduated from the SP College in Srinagar and then earned a post-graduate degree in Arab History from Aligarh Muslim University. He then started a law practice in Anantnag in his home state, and entered politics in the early 60s.

By the age of 31, he was a Deputy Minister in the government, in 1967, headed by GM Sadiq, that had broken away from the National Conference. He was made Congress leader in the Legislative Council from 1972 to 1975, a time when he was consolidating his political base. That was when Indira Gandhi sensed his political worth and his combative streak and picked him to lead the Congress party in Jammu and Kashmir under trying conditions. He was sidelined when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi struck the accord with Sheikh Abdullah, that allowed his return as Chief Minister after 22 years, ending his estrangement from mainstream politics.

The 1977 election was a serious setback for Mr Sayeed's political ambitions. He lost from his hometown, and then lost again in the 1983 elections. Egged on by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, Mr Sayeed played a major role in the downfall of the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference government in July 1984. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi offered to make him a Union Minister, and he served as Tourism Minister for a brief period. The Rajiv Gandhi-Farooq Abdullah accord in 1987, in which the National Conference and the Congress formed an electoral alliance in the state elections, allowed Farooq to return as Chief Minister. Mufti left the Congress and hitched his star with VP Singh's Jan Morcha.  

In 1989, he became the Home Minister of India, the first Muslim to hold that post. It proved an ill-fated appointment. Within days of becoming Home Minister, one of his three daughters, Rubaiya, was kidnapped by militants in Srinagar and released under a secret deal involving prisoners. When the VP Singh government fell, Mr Sayeed rejoined the Congress under PV Narasimha Rao. But when Sonia Gandhi took charge of the Congress, he found himself left out in the cold. Though he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Anantnag in 1996 on a Congress ticket, and his daughter Mehbooba won the Assembly seat on the party ticket, they felt they were being ignored by the high command. He reacted in familiar style. The father and daughter resigned from the Congress in 1999, to float the Peoples Democratic Party.

Last time he was Chief Minister in 2002, it was under a coalition government with the Congress, and the rotational formula meant his term lasted only three years. This time, there is a new irony at play. He has been instrumental in wresting power from both the second and third generation of the Abdullah dynasty. It has also fulfilled his life's ambition to put the stamp of popular legitimacy to his leadership in Kashmir.

However, his new post will not be an easy ride, because of the terms of the agreement hammered out between the PDP and the BJP. After arriving in Delhi on Friday to invite the Prime Minister for the swearing-in ceremony, Mr Sayeed said, "I share PM Modi's dream to engage with Pakistan in making Kashmir a peaceful region." He has also advocated talks between the Centre and the separatist Hurriyat Conference.

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