Hope in the air

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

in Srinagar

THIRTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Omar, the scion of Kashmirs first family, the Abdullahs, assumed charge as the youngest Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, bringing new hope for the troubled State. Before the votes cast in the Assembly elections, held in seven phases over two months, were counted on December 28, no one had imagined that this young National Conference (N.C.) leader would realise his dream of 2002 in 2008.

Omar Abdullah was the partys chief ministerial candidate in the 2002 elections, but he lost from the Ganderbal constituency to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Qazi Afzal. The N.C.s tally came down from 60 to 28 then. This time, the party projected former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah as the chief ministerial candidate, perhaps to take advantage of his charisma.

Until the final phase of the elections, N.C. leaders were unsure about their partys chance. However, when the eight segments of Srinagar went to the polls on December 24, the N.C. went into an upbeat mood. In the event, it won all the eight seats and emerged as the single largest party in the 87-member Assembly. Interestingly, the party won 28 seats, as in 2002.

The only difference was that the Congress was more inclined towards an alliance with the N.C. this time than with the PDP, which secured the second highest tally with 21 seats.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its influence in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, improved its tally from a single seat in 2002 to 11.

The Congress (17 seats) and the PDP could have produced the magic figure of 44 with the support of independents, but the Congress central leadership decided otherwise.

The PDP was the Congress coalition partner in the previous government, and following an agreement on rotation of the chief ministership, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed headed the government for the first three years. The Congress Ghulam Nabi Azad assumed charge in 2005, but in mid-2008, the PDP withdrew support to the Congress over the Amarnath land row, upsetting the political equations in the State and putting it under Governors Rule.

Many political analysts believe that the Mufti would have been the best choice for the post of Chief Minister, given his handling of Kashmirs affairs between 2002 and 2005.

Supporters of the N.C. insist that there was no friction between Farooq Abdullah and Omar about who should be the Chief Minister. Party insiders agree that the Congress wanted the junior Abdullah to don the mantle. A day before Farooq made way for his son, he had told a television channel in Srinagar: You are talking to the next Chief Minister of the State.

The Congress, according to reliable sources, did not have faith in the senior Abdullah as he was given to mercurial twists of temperament. Handing over the State to him at this crucial juncture would be suicidal, a top policymaker said in New Delhi on condition of anonymity.

Omar, they believe, is serious, mature and without the flamboyance associated with his father. At 29, he became the youngest Minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre. Omar proved his ability as a Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, and within two years, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee appointed him Minister of State for External Affairs.

Sonia Gandhi is also said to have developed a liking for Omar since his remarkable speech in Parliament on the nuclear deal in July 2008. Rahul Gandhi and Sachin Pilot, both Congress Members of Parliament, are said to have played a key role in the rapprochement between the Gandhi and Abdullah families, whose relations became turbulent following Farooq Abdullahs misadventures in Kashmir. Omar maintained that Rahul was a personal friend and Sachin happened to be his brother-in-law.

State Congress leaders such as Saifuddin Soz and Ghulam Nabi Azad had a minimum role to play in the government formation; they merely seconded Sonia Gandhis choice. In fact, the two leaders are comfortable with the N.C. given their bitter rivalry with the Mufti and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti. The Congress was under immense pressure to avoid the risk of allying itself with the PDP ahead of the forthcoming general elections, given the fact that the PDP changed its course in the wake of the Amarnath agitation and identified itself with the Muslim sentiment.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti was the lone dissenting voice against the agreement reached between the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti and the government, saying that Kashmiris were not taken into confidence. The party proposed self-rule (though within the framework of the Indian Constitution) as a viable solution to the Kashmir issue, regional assemblies for meeting the aspirations of the three regions (Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) of the State, and dual currency. Moreover, the PDP projected itself as a party with an agenda of soft separatism.

The election results brought to the fore the deep communal divide in the State. The PDPs invoking of the Muslim sentiment seems to have worked to an extent, since notwithstanding the anti-incumbency sentiment against its Ministers and MLAs and the Amarnath land order passed by its Forest Minister Qazi Afzal, the PDP increased its tally of seats to 21 from 16 and also recorded a quantum jump in its vote share.

The inroads it made into the Muslim belt of Rajouri and Poonch are also significant. It won Mendhar in Poonch and Darhal in Rajouri and lost Rajouri proper only by a margin of 100 votes. The PDPs presence was visible in the Doda and Ramban belts, and it got a big chunk of the votes in these Muslim-dominated areas.

The N.C. also got a good share of the Muslim votes, as did the Congress. Eleven of the Congress 17 MLAs are Muslims. Three Hindu candidates of the N.C. won from Kalakot, Nowshehra and Vijaypur in the Jammu region, but this had more to do with the candidates own popularity and political stature rather than sympathy for the party. The Congress and the N.C. were wiped out in a pro-BJP wave in Jammu, Udhampur and Kathua districts. The Amarnath agitation not only favoured the BJP in Jammu and the PDP in Kashmir, but it also helped the N.C. and the Congress with the polarisation it caused. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah repeatedly talked about the wounds afflicted in Jammu and Srinagar by the agitation.

Amitabh Mattoo, former Vice-Chancellor of Jammu University, cautions about the reality made visible by the elections. This fractured mandate reflects different aspirations in the three regions, and if not handled politically, they will lead to more divisive ways, he said.

The elections saw fewer independents among the winners. Hakim Yasin, who floated the Peoples Democratic Front, Ghulam Hassan Mir of the Democratic Party (Nationalist), and M.Y. Tarigami, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)s lone MLA, were forced to support the Congress, which did not field candidates against them.

Omar is now set to face enormous challenges in a State that is mired in political quagmire and is as unpredictable as its people. A single bullet fired has the potential to change the course of politics, and a single order issued is enough to put the whole State on fire. Omar may not pursue the demand for greater autonomy as vigorously as his party did until June 2000, when the autonomy resolution was passed by the State Assembly and was immediately rejected by the NDA government.

It is with the working group set up by the Prime Minister and we will pursue it there, Omar told Frontline.

Unemployment is a major issue he will have to deal with. In a State that depends on government jobs and has 40 per cent more workforce than required, Omar may have to create more jobs. The States annual salary bill has crossed Rs.3,800 crore, and if the N.C. government decides to implement the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations (the Chief Minister is already under tremendous pressure to do so), the State may witness a financial crisis. The new government is also under pressure to increase the retirement age to 60 from 58. This has the potential of blocking employment opportunities for more than three lakh educated youth.

I know here everyone is after a government job. I will try to change the mindset of the people and make them understand that it is difficult to give government jobs to all, Omar said. Development of the three regions may be an easier option to follow.

To start with, the young Chief Minister will have to face the test of running the coalition government smoothly. The Congress is known to upset such arrangements. At the outset, it looks like the N.C. has sacrificed most of the development portfolios to retain the Chief Ministers post for the full term.

Will N.C. stalwarts such as Abdur Rahim Rather, Ali Mohammad Sagar, Chowdhary Ramazan and Mian Altaf be able to accept the fact that the Congress has the upper hand in key Ministries? In the past, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was kept on tenterhooks by Congress Ministers.

Omar, however, has the advantage of heading a government that is relatively well placed as far as militancy and violence is concerned.

In 2008, there was a 40 per cent decline in militancy-related violence. The big task would be to control the security forces. There is a demand from many quarters to scrap the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and give fair treatment to detainees.

While the youth have pinned a lot of hope on Omars regime, many in the older generation are sceptical about his ability to deliver.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches law at Kashmir University, tried to analyse the three generations of Abdullahs thus: Sheikh Abdullah, during his first tenure was a trapped rebel, and in the second he was a tamed rebel. Omar is an assimilated Kashmiri.

Farooq does not have credibility for he is seen as non-serious and he provided a basis for armed insurgency in Kashmir. It is to be seen whether Omar discovers his roots in his tryst with power or becomes a tool of assimilation of the new generation in Kashmir.

There is lot of scope for Omar to deliver. But he will have to work hard, without being guided by bureaucratic and political cronies unlike his father, if he is to prove wrong the Kashmir analyst who said, Kashmir is a graveyard of reputations for politicians.

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