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In less than three weeks since she assumed chief minister’s office, Mehbooba Mufti is beset with two major issues – the National Institute of Technology –NIT fracas and the gruesome Handwara killings. And handling these sensitive issues, and many more can confront her ahead, would determine the kind of leader that Mehbooba would be or wants to be. Ms Mufti is not yet done with these two crucial issues and her handling of these would be watched very keenly by observers in Srinagar and Delhi. Her maiden test as head of a sensitive state which is always under Centre’s radar begins now.

        While all the non-local students of NIT are yet to join the classes after they set difficult conditions to return to the campus, the issue has the potential to blow on the face of Mehbooba government in the coming days. The outsider students have demanded setting up a permanent CRPF camp on the campus and shifting out or delinking local faculty from the exam grading. Although they did climb down on their initial demand of transferring the NIT to Jammu and migration from Srinagar, the matter is still hanging fire. The immediate crisis of maintaining law and order may be over but Handwara poses a serious challenge to Mehbooba the leader. Four young boys and an elderly woman lost their lives to security forces firing after a violent clash threatened to go out of hand.

        The incident poses a big question to Mehbooba who has been busy fire fighting the aftermath of the killings amid promise of fair investigations: Would the probe have a different meaning this time around? Would it reach a conclusion and fix accountability? Would any uniformed man be punished or would it be just another probe to contain swirling anger. Unfortunately on both issues of NIT and Handwara, Mehbooba was found wanting. In the NIT crisis – so what it started during the last leg of the Governor N N Vohra’s rule – she was found missing in action. Rather than leading from the front, she kept hiding behind the BJP, handing over the floor to deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh and insulating herself. Her reticence to come forward, listen to the students of both sides of the divide, did betray a sense that she was in control.

       In fact she seemed to be very nascent when Centre decided to post CRPF columns inside the campus – something rare for an educational institute to have permanent paramilitary presence. Her colleagues would argue she dealt with the issue properly because the students would be more comfortable with BJP. The fact, however, is that we are not talking parties. She is the head of the government – a coalition and not a president of party. The issue is still alive and that gives her a chance to make amends and take charge. On the contrary in Handwara, Mufti was quick to hit the ground that had threatened to slip away after violence spiralled out to Kupwara neighbourhoods. Yet she was lucky that it did not travel to Srinagar and further up to south Kashmir – a la 2010 summer uprising. Her reaching out to families with compensation did help to stem the violence from flaring up but her job does not end here. Mehbooba has to ensure that accountability is fixed in all the five killings. For example how was

The immediate crisis of maintaining law and order may be over but Handwara poses a serious challenge to Mehbooba the leader. Four young boys and an elderly woman lost their lives to security forces firing after a violent clash threatened to go out of hand.

   a 70 year old woman killed, 6 km away from Handwara – where security forces fired to quell a protest that was getting bigger and nosier. She needs to cross check the charge levelled by villagers of security men exceeding their brief and breaching the SOP or standard operating procedure. Being a woman, she needs to seek explanation how a 16 year old girl’s confessional video – that she was molested by village boys and not a soldier – was leaked out and then owned by the army. She needs to punish the officials who did not protect the identity of the girl against the apex court norms. If Mehbooba would have her way, heads should have rolled by now.

      At least being the boss of the police, she could have set an example. Will she, won’t she make an example. That will determine her character and what she intends to do in future if a wrong is committed. By now Mehbooba would have figured out that there is a huge difference between heading a government and opposing it. In Opposition you hold all the aces, it gives you unbridled licence to hit out at government left right and centre but power in strategic Jammu and Kashmir can actually shackle you. With power comes responsibility and fine balancing, and in JK, a king’s or queen’s crown always weighs heavy.

        Whether she faces critical issues like these chin up or would she choose to continue as just another chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir is what people in the Valley would like to know? Would she assert and go against the tide or swim with the flow or would she reconcile to the fact that chief minister in this part of the country has very little say on matters of security and policy. That is a question she needs to pose, more to herself than anyone else, and answer. Unlike her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Omar Abdullah – former chief ministers – Mehbooba’s stakes are higher. She has been a firebrand leader who would call a spade a spade. She would be very indiscriminate on hitting the government – whether it was her own father-led coalition or National Conference in lead. She would be very vocal on issues confronting people’s security and human rights. As opposition leader, she would often edge out separatist leaders for championing the human rights in Kashmir.

         Mehbooba would travel to God forsaken villages where even army and police would be hesitant to question police and security excesses. She would meet women, children deprived, poor and take up their issues. As Mufti Mohammad Sayeed would often say during his first term as chief minister – ‘’She is the bigger opponent to my government, more than those facing me in assembly.’’ There would be many challenges ahead of Mehbooba and her success would depend on how she actually manoeuvres on an ice-slippery ground. As chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, she needs to cut concessions from the Centre on economic, political and security front. She would have to bridge the trust deficit between Srinagar and Delhi and find ways to re-engage Delhi with separatists reduce footprints of security forces and take the state in the direction of peace, prosperity, reconciliation and development. How much she is able to extract from Centre will determine the kind of the leader she would make in future.

Her colleagues would argue she dealt with the issue properly because the students would be more comfortable with BJP. The fact, however, is that we are not talking parties. She is the head of the government – a coalition and not a president of party. The issue is still alive and that gives her a chance to make amends and take charge.

         On the party front, she needs to repose trust on people who can run the affairs and build it into a strong and vibrant platform. She would need to blood youth, educated, serious people into the party. Or find a pool of talent who would carry the agenda of the party to the grass root. Mehbooba would face a crucial test in both the assembly and Parliamentary bi-polls later this year. She would vie for her selection to the state assembly – a segment that was held by her father. She would have to vacate Anantnag Parliamentary seat – held by her – and hope her brother or a family member emerges victorious. The two seats pose a test to her family and party. To retain both would be a target that she has given herself.