The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Allies in portfolio tug-of-war

New Delhi, Oct. 29: The People’s Democratic Party is unlikely to concede the home portfolio to the Congress.

It is understood that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed would like to keep the home portfolio with himself and appoint a minister of state (home) from the Congress, preferably from the Jammu region.

Mufti, who is to be sworn in as the new chief minster of Jammu and Kashmir this Saturday, would begin consultations with the Congress on the composition of his Cabinet thereafter. But the tussle between the Congress and the PDP for the plum portfolios has already begun.

At his early stage, three things seem virtually certain: that Mehbooba Mufti would stay out of the government; that senior Congress leader Mangat Ram Sharma, MLA from the Jammu (West), would be the deputy chief minister; that senior PDP leader Muzzaffar Beigh would in all likelihood be given the crucial finance and planning portfolio.

If he himself has chosen to be the chief minister, Mufti would have little to offer to his daughter in the Cabinet. According to well-informed sources, inducting Mehbooba into the Cabinet would also eat into the PDP’s share in the coalition Cabinet without serving any useful purpose.

Instead, Mehbooba would be expected to look after the party organisation. The calculation within the PDP seems to be that should the state need to go for a mid-term poll — nobody expects the coalition government to last more than a year or so — keeping the party organisation well oiled would be an important priority.

Being out of the government, Mehbooba would also be shielded to some extent from the public criticism of the coalition’s record of governance.

As chief minster, Mufti is being advised by his close confidants not to keep too many portfolios with himself. However, it is not clear at this stage whether Mufti has accepted their wise counsel.

To tone up the administration in the state, the new chief minister is also likely to change present Cabinet secretary Inderjit Singh Malhi who has been given a month’s extension.

There are many senior IAS officers in the running for the top job. They include: Wazahat Habibullah, Jalil Khan, Sudhir Biloria and Shafi Pandit. Of them, Shafi Pandit is considered closest to the Mufti.

However, should the chief minster decide to send a political signal by appointing a Hindu from Jammu as the next chief secretary, the choice may fall on Sudhir Biloria.

According to sources close to Mufti, after his swearing in, the chief minister’s first priority would be to re-open schools all over the state and make them functional once again. Most of the schools in rural areas of the state have become non-functional over the years.

Re-opening hospitals and primary health centres is likely to be another of Mufti’s top priorities. He is being advised that while infrastructure projects like rebuilding roads and bridges, etc, may take a long time to show any results, making schools and hospitals immediately functional would have a salutary effect on public morale.

Within the first few days of coming into power, the new chief minister would like to order the release of all those in custody against whom no charges have been filed.

However, sources in Srinagar say this may be easier said than done — the screening process may take considerable amount of time.

In all, the number of those likely to be released is not expected to exceed about 600, according to the sources.

The chief minister designate has also promised relief and rehabilitation not only to the victims of militancy but also to families of slain militants. The latter may prove to be a hot potato for Mufti as it is already being criticised in political circles as akin to providing an ‘insurance cover’ to the militants.

“This is political posturing. Once you take up the reins of the government, your attitude changes,” pointed out a political observer.

The first thing that the Mufti is likely to do is to offer a dialogue to the militants, urging them to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table.

“Only then will the question of rehabilitation of militants or the families of slain militants come up,” the sources said.

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