Till recently, Mehbooba Mufti — a hardy, unconventional woman working in a dangerous and male dominated world — held one of the toughest jobs in India. As the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba, a 59-year-old single mother, defied multiple orthodoxies, to build her political party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), from scratch. Now she has been unceremoniously dumped by her alliance partner, the BJP, and the three-year-old government she led has collapsed. For months now, some of us who report on the state had forecast this. The assassination of journalist Shujaat Bukhari and army soldier Aurangzeb provided the BJP a perfectly legitimate context to implement a decision they had taken some time ago.
The question is: how did someone as intuitively political as Mehbooba not see it coming? Why did she wait to be ousted and humiliated instead of leaving an alliance that was only eroding her popularity? The BJP clearly and smartly outmanoeuvred her. And whispers are afloat that it could yet back a split in the PDP, or even encourage a new leader at its helm so that fresh elections can be avoided. How did Mehbooba Mufti not see the writing on the wall?
In some ways, this has been Mehbooba Mufti’s Manmohan moment.
Almost everyone agrees that in the second term of the UPA, the otherwise personally decent former Prime Minister became a pale shadow of what he used to be. Virtually paralysed by relentless allegations of corruption and an unwieldy power-sharing arrangement with his party, he retreated into ineffectual silence instead of taking controversies head on and scripting his own narrative. He also clung on to the post longer than he should have; a midterm resignation would have not just been an assertion of authority, it would have salvaged his bruised reputation.
The PDP leader has made identical mistakes. Had she displayed the courage to abandon an alliance she was clearly uncomfortable in, she would have been not just politically stronger, her criticism of the BJP would have carried a little more weight. Now her statements sound belated and all-too convenient. Just like the former PM, she isolated herself, surrounded herself by a small coterie of yes men, was suspicious of her own ministerial colleagues, stopped responding well to friendly criticism and almost entirely disengaged with the media.
In 2010, when her opponent, Omar Abdullah, was the chief minister and the Valley had erupted into a similar and prolonged crisis, he, too, had withdrawn into an inexplicable, uncommunicative shell: a mistake he admitted to later. At the time, as an opposition leader, it was Mehbooba who appeared emotionally rooted and authentic, more grassroots than armchair, more expressive than stoic and always more strong-willed than scared. As someone who has known her well for more than two decades, these are qualities I have long admired in her, even when she and I have disagreed on some issues.
But as the state spiralled into free fall, I saw Mehbooba become the very opposite of what I have known her to be. Her own party colleagues privately talk about fundamental errors she made. She got into needless confrontations with cabinet colleagues, either humiliating or dropping several PDP ministers. By contrast, a coterie of unelected advisors acquired a disproportionate say in decision-making. And though no one will say it on the record, party members increasingly became resentful of the influence family members who did not hold any official post were able to wield in the administration. Who would be her link to the BJP in Delhi also became a sticking point. Initially she wanted no mediators; she wanted to conduct the talks directly. Then when her (later sacked) finance minister was appointed as the interlocutor for the agenda of alliance dialogue with the BJP leader, Ram Madhav, she became uncomfortable with his links in Delhi. Strategically, she may have made a mistake in keeping a channel open only with home minister, Rajnath Singh, whom she saw as a moderate, and none with the other key protagonists who were in fact calling the shots.
Some mistakes may have been tactical — and those can be made by any politician, no matter how experienced. More bewildering has been the basic transformation of an outgoing, outspoken, warm but tough-as-nails politician into a taciturn, reserved and entirely withdrawn person who is so wary of the outside world that she is finally devoured by it. It is this personal shift in Mehbooba Mufti’s personality — a Manmohan Singh like retreat — that is so much harder to figure out.
Perhaps now that the alliance is finally buried,Perhaps now that the alliance is finally buried, Mehbooba Mufti may find her resurrection: another chance to find — and be — herself.