For an Outline of Normalcy

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India’s northernmost state is in turmoil again. Is Omar Abdullah really in charge?

In Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), never assume too much. Soon after Omar Abdullah took over as Chief Minister of the troubled state, his father Farooq Abdullah sauntered into his office along with a government official. The senior Abdullah wanted the CM to “adjust him somewhere”, and then left. The official, basking in the glory of a recommendation from the grand old man of Kashmiri politics, was offered a cup of tea. But his very first attempt to speak to the young CM left him dazed. “You think just because you came with my father I will entertain you,” Omar glared at him. The official froze. “Please go away,” snapped Omar, reportedly.

With such promise of administrative transparency was Omar Abdullah expected to spring into action, fast-tracking J&K towards normalcy—or at least a broad outline of it. His party, the National Conference (NC), had won back the electorate’s favour from its rival People’s Democratic Party (PDP). As the leader of an NC-Congress coalition, much was expected of him also because of his ties with the ruling party at the Centre. This, after all, was the man whose passionate speech during the confidence motion in Parliament, on 22 July 2008, had mesmerised viewers across the country, making him an overnight YouTube sensation. The man of the moment. Young, articulate and raring to go.

But six months later, that promise has turned out to be a damp squib. More and more people think that he is turning out to be much like his father, the former CM. “All gas,” as a political observer puts it.
In the past few weeks, the Valley has been rocked by violent protests over a series of abductions and killings. There has been a focal point for opinions to converge—the shocking rape and murder of two women, allegedly by security forces, in Shopian, south Kashmir.

It happened in May. After two young female bodies were found in a stream, Omar Abdullah made a hasty statement to the effect that the women had drowned. But their co-villagers sensed something foul. Once the post-mortem report confirmed rape, the CM was forced to eat his words. Omar Abdullah now admits that he made a mistake, and that he had been misinformed by his officials. “I have learnt lessons from the Shopian incident,” he says, “It is just that I relied on wrong information.”

In a state of such volatility, and on an issue that inflames local sensibilities like none other, the CM has learnt that any error of judgment can prove costly. And this is the rough and tumble of real politics beyond electoral rallies and parliamentary debates; there are no V signs to be flashed, no monologue to be made in a hall to retrieve the grim ground situation.

Dealing with crowd protests requires an entirely new skill, and Omar Abdullah has earned little credit for himself in this. Some Kashmiris have already nicknamed his government ‘Curfew Sarkar’, so frequent has its imposition in the Valley been, lately.

His political adversaries, meanwhile, have taken to calling him a non-resident CM. In the past six months, he has been to New Delhi about two dozen times.

Then there are critics who speak of his ‘political immaturity’. On the touchy issue of troop reduction, Omar Abdullah had tried to pre-empt the PDP by hastily demanding that the armed forces’ deployment be taken back to pre-1989 levels. After the Shopian crisis flared up, the junior Abdullah announced a retreat from the area of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) members, and then was forced to take a U-turn on this after a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi. Worse, he muddied waters further by saying that the state police was not equipped to take complete charge. This was just a few hours after he had said that the Valley’s latest street eruption was just a law-and-order problem and not a case of renewed militancy.
Compounding his woes, Omar Abdullah faces dissent within the NC, stirred up by his recent allocation of ministerial portfolios. Till last week’s cabinet expansion, the CM himself held as many as 20 portfolios. But now that some have been allotted, several party legislators have openly displayed their displeasure. The most disappointed is perhaps the MLA from Kupwara, Mir Saifullah, whose supporters argue that it was his efforts that boosted electoral participation in recent Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. “We will all resign if Saifullah sahab is not invited to join the cabinet,” says Peer Abdur Rashid, a leading dissident and district secretary of the NC in Kupwara.

Perhaps a bigger worry—grumbles have also emerged from the NC’s coalition ally, the Congress. Its senior leader Choudhary Mohammad Aslam resigned as leader of the Congress legislature party after the oath-taking ceremony. He felt “humiliated and ignored”. The two parties’ relations haven’t exactly been smooth. Just before the cabinet expansion, Omar Abdullah was caught red faced when the J&K Congress chief Saifuddin Soz announced the new portfolios, which is the CM’s prerogative. So the CM shot off a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who is said to have had a word with both Soz and Ghulam Nabi Azad, another senior Congress leader from Kashmir, on maintaining harmony in Srinagar. In a placatory move, Choudhary Aslam may be appointed the Congress state unit’s next president—while Omar Abdullah is nudged towards a finer balance of assorted sensitivities.

The People’s Democratic Front (PDF), an ally of the Congress, is also unhappy as its chairman, Hakeem Mohammed Yasin, has found no place in the cabinet.

Sources point out that there is just too much tension between Omar and local Congress leaders. Even the Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand has been issuing public statements which are being interpreted as a challenge to Omar Abdullah’s authority. Some files on the preservation of the Dal Lake, cleared by the CM, have been blocked by Tara Chand. There is an age gap, of course, which worsens coordination.
“The chemistry just doesn’t match with him,” says a senior NC leader who feels the CM needs to pay his elders more respect.

The pressure to perform, however, comes from the electorate. The CM’s record here is not sparkling either. A promised 24-hour call centre to cater to public grievances hasn’t even started. His stance on being open to dialogue with separatists has evoked little by way of response, and those who misled him on the Shopian horror seem to have gone scot free, let alone the rapist-murderer/s. Cynicism is back, in short.
Harmony eludes the Valley. Even Coffea Arabica, Srinagar’s most popular café, otherwise an oasis of calm, has seen disturbances by protestors. “My mother tells me if you can’t take the heat, then don’t be in the kitchen,” Omar Abdullah told a TV channel recently. Is he assuming a heat tolerance higher than he can bear?