``Not when, if. If I become Chief Minister,'' he says firmly in response to a question about his agenda as Jammu and Kashmir's next Chief Minister. Few people in the State doubt that Omar Abdullah will assume office after the results of the Assembly elections become known on October 12. But it is also clear that his party is facing perhaps the most severe electoral challenge it has ever been confronted with. In private, most National Conference (N.C.) leaders admit that they expect, at best, a narrow majority in the House of 87. And some people have already started discussing the prospect of winning over independents to secure a majority. In this interview to Frontline, Abdullah discussed the reasons for the problems facing the N.C., admitting that some Members of the Legislative Assembly and party figures had failed to work for their constituencies. He also said that while the N.C. government had several important achievements to its credit, it had failed to communicate these to the voters. On the issue of the hostility that some senior party figures have for the change of guard in the party, Abdullah said that organisational changes were inevitable, but that these would be gradual. His father (and Chief Minister) Farooq Abdullah had erred in removing the party's old guard overnight after coming to power in 1982, Omar Abdullah said, adding that he was determined not to repeat the mistake. Excerpts from the interview he gave Praveen Swami:
This election campaign seems to be much tougher for the N.C. than in 1996? How much ground do you believe the party has lost?
I don't think the National Conference has lost out. All elections are difficult and more so in Jammu and Kashmir. Here we have to fight not only mainstream political parties, but also proxy (All-Parties) Hurriyat Conference candidates, as well as organisations that have armed wings, such as Kukka Parrey and his Ikhwan. Moreover, in this election we are seeing a new phenomenon of disgruntled National Conference elements who having been denied the ticket are contesting against the official candidates. So, there is definitely a fiercer contest than there was in 1996, but we're certainly not loosing the fight.
How serious is dissatisfaction with the N.C. government? Many ordinary people seem very upset that the expectations they had in 1996 have not been met.
The simple fact is that no government could have met the enormous expectations the people had in 1996. Our track record in terms of work has been good, but we have failed in selling that work to the people. This is primarily owing to the fact that our core workers have been sitting in the secure accommodation in Srinagar and Jammu. There is no doubt that we are paying a price for I'm struggling to find the right words but anyway, the lack of interest shown by the MLAs in communicating our government's work to the people. In some cases, MLAs haven't even bothered to go back to their constituencies after getting elected. This is the reason why I was forced to look for new candidates at some places. But despite all this, I don't think that the anti-incumbency sentiment is as much of an issue as some people are making it out to be. After all, even after six years in office, we won the Jammu Lok Sabha seat earlier this year, something that we had never succeeded in doing in the past.
A very large number of your party workers and their supporters have been killed in the last few weeks, most notably, of course, Law Minister Mushtaq Lone. Under the circumstances, how far do you think people will feel able to vote?
I think there is going to be a regional divide on this, for this is no uniform factor that applies through the State. I think, by and large, north Kashmir would be all right, with the exception of Mushtaq Lone's constituency, Lolab. Urban Srinagar has always been indifferent to elections, and will be indifferent this time around as well. However, in the rural areas of Srinagar and Badgam, I expect to see the same turnout as there was in 1996, if not better. The real area of concern is south Kashmir, where terrorists are pretty much free to do anything they like. This would certainly have an impact on voter turnout. Some parts of Rajouri and Poonch are problematic, but the picture again is patchy. By and large, however the people are keen to come out and participate in the polls.When you take over as Chief Minister...Not when, if.Yes, if.I'm much happier with that.
So, if you take over as Chief Minister, how much opposition do you think you will face from some senior politicians and bureaucrats who seem quite hostile to change?
Look, anyone who is well-entrenched in a system dislikes change. The nature of the system is that it encourages people to resist change for as long as possible, and then to take credit for it when it becomes inevitable. I can tell you honestly, to take a small example, that this is how it was in the allocation of seats to candidates. Once I made changes, the same people who had opposed the decision started rumours that they in fact were responsible for new faces being chosen. But that's all right, it's something I expect. More seriously, ever since I took charge of the National Conference, I have been telling people not to expect drastic overnight changes. Look at 1982-1983, when my father came, full of idealism and sought to transform the party instantly and threw out the old guard my grandfather had in place. So what happened? In 1984, the old guard all reared up and dismissed his government. A succession of problems followed the 1987 alliance with the Congress, the whole Muslim United Front business, and so on. All the problems we now have can be traced back to the sudden overnight changes of1982-83. I'm determined not to repeat the mistake. The old guard will make way for the new, but it will happen when they are ready. No one will be forced out.
If you become Chief Minister, you will of course be leaving New Delhi. Given the fact that the Union government did not back your father's efforts to become President or Vice-President, and that he was indeed treated somewhat shabbily, what implications do you think it might have on the long-term relationship between the N.C. and the National Democratic Alliance?
Well, I've spoken about the treatment of my father, and since then held my silence. Anyway these things are not based on personalities, or how one person or the other is treated. There are issues and ideologies at stake. Now, we were very reassured by the statements of Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Union Minister of State for Defence Chaman Lal Gupta that there was absolutely no question of the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. But now we find that the Bharatiya Janata Party is sharing a platform, for narrow political ends, with people committed to carving up the State. This is something that concerns us very deeply. But, again, don't expect anything sudden. Whether the National Conference will continue to have ministerial representation in New Delhi is something the party will have to decide after the elections.
Finally, what concrete expectations do you have about the dialogue you now have with Arun Jaitley on autonomy? How serious do you believe the Union government in fact is on this issue?
I think the Union government is very serious about the dialogue on autonomy that Arun Jaitley is conducting with us. For a variety of reasons, I do not wish to make public my thinking on this issue just now. But again, I have good reason to believe that this Union government, or for that matter any other government that comes to power, would have to be serious about autonomy.