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Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the quintessential Delhi man in J&K

Mufti Islah

Updated: January 7, 2016, 11:22 PM IST
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Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the quintessential Delhi man in Srinagar, an Indian by conviction but largely unpopular in Valley for taking on state's tallest leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, died days before he was to turn 80. He is survived by wife, three daughters, son and grandchildren.

Mufti's political career, spanning over 60 years though marred by controversies, has many highs. A no-nonsense politician, hard bargainer, he would seldom budge on principles and what he set out to do. As a young union tourism minister, he stood up to the powerful Congress high command in protest and resigned over Meerut killings.

A keen observer of politics and blessed with enormous experience and patience, Mufti wouldn't hesitate to take political risks, if at all, it would mean achieving objectives.

The forging of an alliance with Narendra Modi's recalcitrant BJP in 2015, had invited huge criticism in Kashmir yet he went against the tide.

Though Mufti admitted the alliance was akin to North Pole joining South Pole, he had hoped Modi's BJP, which won a landslide mandate, would further Vajpayee doctrine of engaging with Kashmiris and Pakistan.

Mufti always believed good relations with Pakistan would bolster peace and development in the border state. He was perhaps expecting Modi to give him a free hand to strengthen cross border movement of people and goods - a la Vajpayee - but failed to convince him on granting more Kashmir-centric CBMs.

As first Muslim Union home minister, it was during the VP Singh regime, Mufti shot himself in his foot when he appointed Jagmohan as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir in 1990, the year when insurgency broke out in Kashmir and people's government was suspended. Jagmohan's reign saw many killings at the hand of police and deterioration of law and order in Kashmir. He ultimately was chucked out much before his tenure would come to an end.

And months before getting Jagmohan in, Mufti got embroiled in a serious controversy when five commanders of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front had to be released in lieu of his abducted daughter.

Mufti had regretted the move to free militants more than once because the incident further fuelled militancy.

Earlier in 1984, he was despised for overthrowing Farooq Abdullah government by masterminding a defection within NC and supporting Ghulam Mohammed Shah to become chief minister. A bruised Abdullah hasn't forgotten the 'scheming' Mufti even today.

Though Mufti rose to the position of Union minister, he remained largely unpopular at home. He lost more elections than he won and could never rub off his 'Delhi man' image.

However, in the twilight of his career, Mufti shrugged off the image trap by founding the People's Democratic Party, a regional party that would emerge as a serious alternative to state's grand old party, National Conference.

The party soon strode to power in 2002, barely three years after it came into being. Mufti's charismatic daughter Mehbooba Mufti, who is likely to succeed him as first woman chief minister in J&K, repackaged him as 'leader of Kashmir'.

For nearly four decades, Mufti remained a Congress man, first, as an understudy of GM Sadiq and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, former J&K prime ministers and later heading its state unit.

But Congress under Mufti never shot off playing second fiddle to Sheikh Abdullah, the lion of Kashmir.

By a strange quirk of fate, the 'outsider' Congress came to power with Mufti's PDP in 2002. The party owes it to Mufti for ruling the state for nine straight years, three with PDP and six with Omar Abdullah's NC.

Over the last 15 years, Mufti, the astute politician, had built his image by not being critical about Pakistan and initiating some people-friendly developmental measures. Skirmishes on the boundary and uneasy relation between India and Pakistan did not help him.

Mufti's moment came when PDP strode to power on the plank of soft separatism and forging 'good' relation with Pakistan, While he was in an alliance with Congress, Mufti could convince the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to support Pak-peace overtures and initiate CBM like starting the cross-LoC bus and trade.

On ground too, he created feel good factor of easing the security situation by winding up special operation group units. The move was seen as a huge relief for people especially in rural areas.

Mufti coined a term "healing touch" policy and in a short term of three years as chief minister he could earn some public goodwill.

But Mufti's popularity nosedived in 2008 when his forest minister Qazi Mohommad Afzal, who had defeated Omar Abdullah and earned the sobriquet of giant killer, signed the cabinet memo for allotting forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The issue sparked massive outrage setting the stage for first 'azadi groundswell' in the valley.

Mufti tried to redeem his image by withdrawing support from the Ghulam Nabi Azad government but the damage had already been done. Mufti’s party lost the polls and the alliance partner in the same year. So much so Congress tied up with Omar and forfeited the condition of three-year-term policy for the chief minister.

Mufti however did not lose heart and went back to drawing board to plan strategy and connect with the grassroots. Six years later, Mufti
won the elections with his party emerging single largest with 28 seats.

Born in 1936 in south Kashmir township of Bijbehera, Mufti completed his masters in Arabic after studying law from Aligarh Muslim University in 1959 before returning to Kashmir to join politics.

His first political challenge came in 1996 assembly election, when militancy was at its peak and Congress was in a very bad shape.

Mufti had to field his daughter Mehbooba from Bijbehera and wife from Pahalgam constituencies to fill in the blanks. Mehbooba, a single mother with two daughters and a reluctant politician, won her seat but her mother lost from Pahalgam.

But the father-daughter's journey in Congress was a rocky ride until 1999 when the duo quit the party and founded PDP.

First Published: January 7, 2016, 11:22 PM IST