Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Failed Prince

HE was a Member of Parliament at the age of 28, a Union minister at 29, President of National Conference (NC) at 34, and at the tender age of 38, Omar Abdullah became Chief Minister of the strife-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir. Though he is his father’s son, and the grandson of the great Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, Omar Abdullah is in many ways a self-made man, an identity he underlined when he literally seized the crown from the hands of his father in the wake of the NC’s good showing in the 2008 elections, and placed it on his own head.

The victory was especially sweet for Omar who had taken over as President of the NC in June 2002 and gone down with his party in the state assembly elections later that year, failing to win even his own Ganderbal seat.

On January 5, 2009, a sense of elation was visible on Omar’s face as he was sworn in as the head of the NCCongress coalition. “People have given us the confidence and we have a number of challenges, but I assure you I will rise to your expectations,” Omar had told the audience gathered on the day he took his oath of office at the Zorawer Singh auditorium in Jammu. As a mark of his proximity to the Gandhi family with whom the Abdullahs have had relations going back to the 1930s, the Congress agreed that Omar should be Chief Minister for the entire term of six years, rather than share the office as had been done in the previous coalition between the Congress party and Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party.

Abdullah carried with him the hopes of the new generation — the people as well as the politicians. He was after all, first among a group of Gen- Next politicians who had been given exclusive executive authority as the Chief Minister. Everyone knew that it was not going to be easy. The state in question was, after all, Jammu & Kashmir. But, he came in at an extraordinary time. In the 2008 elections, the turnout was a high 61 per cent and even in Srinagar, the heartland of separatism, the vote had been, in the post 1990s era, an unprecedented 20 per cent.

Two short years later, Omar once again stares at the political abyss. Fifty-six days of political protest that have taken the lives of nearly fifty people and injured a thousand have brought the state government to its knees. The Union government in New Delhi does not have any answers either. A measure of the crisis is indicated by the fact that both are now actually seeing arch-secessionist Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s appeal to the Kashmiri youth to desist from violent protest as the only ray of hope in the otherwise stormy seas. FOR more than half of Omar’s life, violence has been an everyday affair in Kashmir. He has witnessed directly or indirectly the ups and downs of his party and his father: reviled in 1990, courted in 1995, dumped in 2002, and courted again in 2008. Assassination and death at the hands of the terrorists have been an everpresent danger for his family. There was no proverbial honeymoon period as chief minister for Omar.

He was thrown into the hurly burly of the most intense type of politics as the agitation over the Shopian rape case rocked the state within six months of his assuming office. PDP leader Muzzaffar Hussein Beigh needled him into resign-ing by charging that he was involved in a sex scandal. Yet some of what he faces today was foretold in the Amarnath Yatra agitation of 2008 when mass public protest brought the state to a standstill. Instead of guns, the Amarnath or Shopian case protestors used stones and arson.

This less-than-lethal method of protest took the security forces by surprise. Instead of an insurgency, the police were suddenly asked to confront what was, at best, a law and order problem. Unfortunately, they have been unable to cope and therein lies the rub. This became obvious following the terrible cycle of agitations and protestors’ deaths that began with the accidental killing of Tufail Mattoo who was hit by a spent tear gas shell on June 11. Omar had taken office assuming that his task was to build on the slow return of peace in the state. Infiltration had been steadily declining, as had violent militancy.

This was suited to his style and inclination. He saw his task as one of providing a clean and efficient administration for the people, providing jobs for the army of educated unemployed people who have formed the core of the present protests and so on. This was saying a lot because the Kashmir state government under his father and his predecessors was known for nepotism, corruption and inefficiency. But Omar is the anti-Farooq. Where his father is a back-slapping politician of the old school, Omar is intense and private. His father likes his evening whisky, Omar is a teetotaller. Unlike his father and grandfather, he is no great orator and shuns flamboyant gestures.

In many ways he identifies himself with a group of politicians who have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths but speak to a new India through Twitter and Facebook. It was no surprise then that even as the knives were out for him, GenNext MPs in Parliament issued an unprecedented statement of support for Omar cutting across party lines. Regretting the violence, the MPs who included Congress’ Deepender Hooda and Priya Dutt, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, BJP’s Anurag Thakur and others declared: “We, as representatives of the people ourselves, believe that together with a positive frame of mind we can seek resolution only through open communication.”

IN part Omar’s troubles have arisen from this effort to distance himself and his party from his father’s legacy. In the two years of his government, senior NC leaders like Abdul Rahim Rather, the finance minister, and Ali Mohammed Sagar, the law minister, have been sidelined. He has declined to take the help of his own father, as well as Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Saifuddin Soz. His power center has been his links with 10 Janpath and Rahul Gandhi. Instead of relying on his party colleagues, he has relied on his political advisor, businessman Devender Singh Rana, since 2008.

But his personality has become his biggest hurdle in the present crisis. Instead of reaching out to the people who had been killed or wounded in the protest, he sought to get New Delhi to change the behaviour of the security forces. It took him an astonishing 45 days and 49 deaths to make his first visit to a Srinagar hospital to commiserate with the wounded. It is not as though he is not empathetic, it is just that he probably thought that the gesture would be a hypocritical one. But then, a politician without a touch of hypocrisy is like a snake without his fangs.

Given his age, it would be foolish to write Omar Abdullah’s political epitaph. In any case he has one more quality that will ensure that we will see more of him — stubbornness. This quality is always a double-edged sword. But it gives Omar an enormous sense of conviction and self-assurance. Whether it is proof against the miasma that is Kashmir is, of course, quite another thing.

Mail Today August 8, 2010

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