A little over a year ago, National Conference president Omar Abdullah had told a small group of confidants that he thought a spell in Opposition was exactly what his party needed. It is unlikely that he believed that exactly that prospect was imminent - or that he would lead the party to electoral annihilation. Now, faced with the unenviable task of preparing the party's shell-shocked leadership for fresh elections he believes will take place in the not-too-distant future, Abdullah has resigned as Minister of State for External Affairs, and set up base in Srinagar. In this interview to Praveen Swami, he discussed the reasons for the N.C.'s defeat, and the party's prospects. Excerpts:
There is considerable speculation that the National Conference is seeking to play a destabilising role, and is working to prevent major Opposition blocs from forming a government. Could you describe your current political strategy?
We are not looking to destabilise anybody. We clearly do not have a mandate to form the government. But we are also not in a charitable organisation. My job is not to hand over government to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed or Ghulam Nabi Azad on a platter. My job is to make it as difficult for them as possible - although, I must say, they are making it difficult enough for themselves as it is! Therefore, we are engaged in discussions with like-minded individuals and groups on the political possibilities before us, and will continue these discussions irrespective of what government is formed. Let us see where these talks lead.
To what factors will you attribute the defeat, the scale of which has far exceeded what anyone had anticipated?
I don't think it is possible to attribute the defeat to any single reason. First and foremost, one has to look at the way in which the opposition handled its campaign. National Conference workers were not allowed to campaign in many areas because of terrorist threats. Bombs went off on polling day, miraculously enough, only in areas that were National Conference strongholds. We were, you see, up against all sorts of forces. I'm not denying that there was public anger against us in some areas, of course, but these are all factors we will be analysing in the coming days and weeks.
What specific failures of governance will this introspection focus on?
Well, not just governance, but the whole gamut of issues before us will be discussed. We've thrown the floor open for everyone in the party to say what they want to.
On your own defeat in Ganderbal, you have attributed that to party infighting and not to the government's performance as such.
To a large extent, yes, infighting was responsible for what happened. We have two major factions there, both so determined to destroy each other that they brought the party down along with them. The fact is, we have done an enormous amount of developmental work in Ganderbal, which was completely overshadowed by the problems within the party. I've seen all these reports suggesting that I lost because the local people thought I'd just arrived from London, or wherever, but that's nonsense. After all, I fought a parliamentary election from Srinagar, and the largest numbers of my votes came from Ganderbal, and the adjoining Assembly constituency, Kangan.
Now that you have resigned as Union Minister of State for External Affairs, how do you see your own political future?
I have a lot to do here. I still have the job of representing my parliamentary constituency, Srinagar. I hope to spend a lot more time on this than I was able to do while discharging my responsibilities in New Delhi. I also have the job of rebuilding the party here - given that an election could be called any time.
So you believe that a new government that will take charge will not last?
I believe that we are going to be in election mode pretty much from Day One, if at all a government is formed! I just can't see how people without any ideological or political coherence are going to pull along. I have this dictum, call it Omar Abdullah's law of coalition politics if you will. And the law is this: there has to be an inverse relationship between the length of time it takes for a party to stake its claim to power and the length of time the coalition lasts! The amount of time these people have taken just to put together their alliance doesn't suggest that they're going to spend very much time together running the government.
Where do you see your relationship with the National Democratic Alliance headed from here? After all, it didn't help you gain any real economic benefits, nor a meaningful dialogue on autonomy. And many people believe it cost you the elections.
I think it is imperative that the autonomy dialogue with Arun Jaitley now continue, particularly since there is now only one member of the Assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA, who is actually opposed to greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. As for the rest, I do not wish for any drastic change to be made in a hurry. Let us wait and see how the situation develops.