In the grey light of a Delhi winter dawn, 79-year-old Mufti Mohammad Sayeed breathed his last, leaving a legacy not many in India’s troubled border State can boast of.

There are many chapters in the late Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister’s six-decade-long political life that invite conflicting views. But there’s one which evokes no conflict or contradiction in this proud Kashmiri’s tryst with electoral democracy — his commitment to the peace process in Kashmir and belief in the Indian democratic traditions.

Final milestone

That his last political feat was the formation of a coalition government with the BJP for the first time, is a typically befitting culmination of a career, which saw him emerge from being the face of the Congress to the strongest provincial rival to the mighty Abdullahs in the Valley.

In the aftermath of the Assembly elections last year, one watched with increasing admiration Mufti’s tough negotiating skills, which frustrated and tired out the BJP. With 28 and 25 seats for the PDP and the BJP respectively, this was the most polarised mandate – dividing the Valley and Jammu regions on communal lines.

Despite his soft separatist stance that distinguishes the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) from a more nationalistic National Conference (NC), Mufti not only dared to forge an alliance with a BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he even managed to satisfy the more hard-line elements in his party.

Shrewd negotiator

The carefully negotiated Common Minimum Programme (CMP) that brought, by Mufti’s own admission, “the North Pole and South Pole” together in Kashmir, had pledged to keep the sanctity of Article 370 intact.

The BJP had to dilute this key element in its ideological agenda to get Mufti to agree to form a coalition government. Even on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the PDP-BJP’s CMP was a far cry from the BJP’s insistence on its continuation.

“The government will examine the need for de-notifying disturbed areas which will, as a consequence, enable the Centre to take a final view on the continuation of AFSPA in these areas,” said the CMP, clearly indicating a give-and-take between the two partners.

A lesser-known story in this script is that for all the PDP’s posturing on the withdrawal of AFSPA, the controversial law was imposed in the Valley when Mufti was the nation’s Home Minister in 1989-1990 and the State was under Governor’s rule.

This was a period of militancy rearing its head in J&K and even striking Mufti — his daughter Rubaiya was abducted by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) within three days of Mufti assuming charge as Home Minister.

The other aspect of the AFSPA story is that the National Conference, which doesn’t tire of recalling Mufti’s role in the imposition of the law, did precious little to force its withdrawal once elections were held and Farooq Abdullah became Chief Minister again in 1996.

This contradiction is significant in unravelling the complex and intrigue-ridden politics of this strife-torn State, where nothing is really what it seems. The brilliance of Mufti Sayeed is that he understood the paradox of Kashmir better than most of his contemporaries. So, while this law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University rose to be a deputy minister in GM Sadiq’s government in 1962 – the first time he was elected an MLA from Bijbehara, he parted ways soon enough.

At the time when the Valley sentiment was high in favour of an incarcerated Sheikh Abdullah, Mufti left Sadiq’s party to join the Congress to serve as the Grand Old Party’s young face in the Valley for the next two decades.

Mufti’s coup

When Indira Gandhi entered into an accord with Sheikh Abdullah in 1974 to facilitate his rise to power, Mufti engineered a coup. Just ahead of elections in 1977, the local Congress withdrew support to the Abdullah government ostensibly with the purpose of installing Sayeed as Chief Minister.

However, instead of his appointment as CM, Governor’s rule was imposed and in the subsequent elections, the National Conference under Sheikh Abdullah came back with a thumping majority.

After Sheikh Abdullah’s demise in 1982, his son Farooq became Chief Minister. Although this government too was to be dismissed by the Centre, the Congress’s subsequent alliance with the National Conference finally pushed Mufti out of the Congress. He joined forces with VP Singh and became Home Minister. By 1999, Mufti had formed his own party, the PDP, which overtly sympathised with militants and adopted a stronger Kashmiri identity than even Sheikh Abdullah did at the height of his popularity.

From advocating the Congress’s ideological doctrine in the Valley against Sheikh Abdullah’s Kashmiri nationalism to voicing a semi-separatist sentiment, Mufti had done a complete about-turn.

But even this hard-line ideological posturing did not prevent him from tying up with the BJP or being known as a close associate and friend of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

But for all his ideological turns, the one permanent strand in Mufti’s political life was continued negotiation and participation in Indian parliamentary democracy.

His demise leaves Kashmir without a leader, whose profound understanding of democratic institutions and power structures made him invaluable for the continuation of peace process in Kashmir.

The expected elevation of his daughter and political heir Mehbooba Mufti to the Chief Minister’s office in Jammu and Kashmir will not be as smooth as it would have been had Mufti saab been alive to see it through.

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