11 JANAURY 2016
Mehbooba Mufti’s tough task
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who passed away on Thursday, leaving a vacuum in the mainstream politics of Jammu and Kashmir, had for months been preparing for his political exit. In November 2015, just eight months after he took over as Chief Minister to head what had seemed an impossible coalition of his Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, he had begun to prepare for the succession, saying that his daughter, and PDP president, Mehbooba Mufti deserved to be the Chief Minister. She had worked in the party organisation and was better connected than he was with the people, he had stressed, while adding that she had the experience of being both an MLA and an MP. There were indications at the time also of discussions within the PDP as well as with the BJP leadership on the issue of Ms. Mufti being her father’s chosen successor. Of course, there were murmurs of dissent within the PDP and some unhappiness in the BJP State unit as she had always been less conciliatory than her father, especially when it came to her views on the role of the security forces and issues of human rights violations. On her part, Ms. Mufti had voiced her reluctance about becoming Chief Minister. In fact, staying out of the administration formally, her supporters felt, allowed her to carry along a wider cross-section of political opinion in the State. But now, the moment of truth has arrived — and the challenges before her as she readies herself to take charge of Jammu and Kashmir will be enormous.
Running J&K has never been an easy task. But after a short spell of Governor’s Rule to accommodate her wish not to take charge till the period of mourning for her father is over, Ms. Mufti will take over its reins at a particularly difficult moment in its history. In recent months, thanks largely to the role played by the BJP, the State has been divided on the beef and dual flag controversies. There has also been a spike in militancy: indeed, in the PDP strongholds of Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama in southern Kashmir, there has been a more than a week-old hartal demanding a memorial for slain militants, a fallout, many say, of local unhappiness with the PDP’s alliance with the BJP. Ms. Mufti will have to balance the interests of the people of the Kashmir Valley with those of Jammu while dealing with the Army and the security agencies. In the months to come, friends, allies and rivals alike will watch the State’s first woman Chief Minister for the slightest misstep. She will have to temper her politics to ensure that the coalition stays afloat, even as she combines assertiveness and diplomacy to keep her own flock together. Ms. Mufti has both qualities of head and heart to be Chief Minister, but she may also need a big dose of luck for what is one of the toughest jobs in the country.
Sri Lanka’s historic opportunity
It is a moment of great hope and some fear in Sri Lanka. As it takes the first step towards drafting a new Constitution, there is renewed hope that the island nation will be able to reinvent itself as a modern state, one that brings economic prosperity and national unity. At the same time, it is also difficult to ignore the fear that yet another opportunity presented by history may fail owing to political opposition, ethnic extremism and an entrenched, if not systemic, resistance to change. President Maithripala Sirisena’s address to Parliament on the occasion of the tabling of a motion to create a Constitutional Assembly was bold in its invocation of past failures. His candid reference to the failure to implement past agreements as the origin of the protracted civil war showed deep understanding of his country’s situation. Laced with justified apprehensions about the likely impediments, Mr. Sirisena has warned his countrymen against attempts to raise the bogey of external pressure and an alleged threat to the special status of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He is aware of the presence of extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide. He has asserted that a constitutional solution will be indigenous. The process of constituting the entire membership of the current Parliament as a Constitutional Assembly has begun. A steering committee will be tasked with drafting a new Constitution while inputs from outside the parliamentary structure will be in the form of a ‘Public Representation Commission’.
For those familiar with the peace and reform processes of the last quarter century, it may appear that all talk of national unity and a non-discriminatory system is not new. It is a measure of how much the events of the recent years had turned the clock back on the discourse to resolve the national question that each time an incumbent President or Prime Minister spells out a new vision, it is accompanied by new hopes and fears. The broad contours of an alternative constitutional framework are known. To many, it lies in abolishing the executive presidency and reforming the electoral system. In recent years, promoting good governance by strengthening democratic institutions, a comprehensive rights regime and substantive power-sharing arrangements involving all ethnic minorities have been understood to be necessary elements. The path is clear, and the pitfalls are known. The process may be long and the effort to secure a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, followed by a similar special majority in Parliament and approval in a referendum, will require political will and hard work. The emergence of a new order since 2015 under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe provides a setting conducive for positive change, after the first few years in the post-conflict phase were lost in triumphalist and nationalistic rhetoric. It is a historic opportunity for all stake-holders, including Tamils, Muslims and plantation Tamils, to participate in the process. It is time all sides left their nationalist rhetoric of the past behind.