AT 38, Omar Abdullah is the youngest Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Like his father Dr Farooq Abdullah and, before him, his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah, this third-generation member of Kashmirs oldest political family has assumed the top post in the State. Although the National Conference (N.C.) does not enjoy the two-thirds majority it did when his predecessors were elected to power, Omar is confident of completing his tenure smoothly.
The new Chief Minister spelt out his agenda for the State in a free-wheeling interview to Frontline in Srinagar. Excerpts:
Did you expect to head the government in the State? The N.C. had projected Farooq Abdullah as the chief ministerial candidate.
No, certainly not. If nothing else, we were hoping for a mandate to govern. In that case, it would have been Dr [Farooq] Abdullah who would have headed the government. I was not really the candidate. Most of my discussions, speeches, were centred around Dr Sahib.So, what changed the course?
Primarily, what changed it was the split verdict. He [Farooq Abdulah] made it public that he was not comfortable heading a coalition government. Having governed with a two-thirds majority from 1996 to 2002, he perhaps felt that it was not something he was keen about, and that he would rather serve the State in a different capacity.Did the Congress put some pressure?
Not that I know of. Not at any point of time or through any channel did the Congress tell us who should or should not be the Chief Minister. It was his [Farooqs] decision only. He had made up his mind.
The N.C. and the Congress had forged alliances in the past but those failed. What made you to come together again?
I think - quite a few plus points. We both have experience working with coalitions. Myself at the Centre with the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] and the Congress here from 2002 to 2008 and also at the Centre. In the past, when the N.C. had an accord with Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi, the coalition idea was fairly unique both at the national and State levels.
The actual management of the coalition was difficult. Now, I think the Congress has experience in running coalition governments. I believe we have the advantage of learning from mistakes. So long as we do not repeat those mistakes, I think it will be alright.
Do you not think Jammu and Kashmir is different?
I am sure it is, that is why the Congress and the Prime Minister took a firm view that there would be no longdrawn-out discussions. The truth is that what the Mufti [Mohammad Sayeed] achieved in 20 days in 2002 we did in one hour in terms of agreeing to a coalition government and putting the basic framework in place. That again is a lesson they [Congress leaders] have learnt. That is a tribute to how they want this coalition to function, and it is my job to deliver.
The NDA rejected your autonomy proposal. What do you expect from the Congress on this issue?
The document is lying with the working groups set up by the Prime Minister as a result of the Round Table Conference. We will continue to discuss it. The Congress and the N.C. have to govern the State together. Neither of us can expect to sacrifice our respective political agenda, and, therefore, if anybody suggests that the N.C. has sacrificed its agenda for governance or that the Congress has, it is absolutely not true. I think we both recognise and respect the fact that there is space for political ideologies that have to be in conflict with each other.
There is no question of abandoning the agenda. The Congress and the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] were together in a coalition, it did not stop the PDP from talking about demilitarisation, which may not have been the Congress agenda. The N.C. is not out to embarrass its coalition partner but any partner is entitled to its ideology.Where do you begin now?
Many areas, but governance is on top: putting in place an agenda for six years by starting with the first 100 days [of governance]. The youth have a lot of expectations from me. Whether they voted for me or not is not the question but they have a lot of expectations. I cannot provide jobs to everybody, but I can at least find the wherewithal for providing investment opportunities. We have to change the mindset about considering only government jobs as proper employment and see how education can be fine-tuned to enhance skills. There are wounds that require to be healed.
Aside from the fact that the State has witnessed violence for 20 years, we had a summer of agitation that divided the State, pitting Hindus against Muslims. Those wounds require to be healed fully. And a lot more needs to be done.
You have a strong opposition in the form of the PDP with 21 members and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with 11. Does this make you nervous?
No, I am not nervous at all. The job of the opposition is to oppose. I met Mufti Saheb two days before taking the oath of office [on January 5]. I called on him and assured him that the government would be as inclusive as possible and that we wanted to carry everybody along. He has been given a mandate to oppose. I expect him to play that role.
Having the PDP and the BJP at the two extremes is good for us. My job is to deliver and theirs is to oppose.
Does the state of the relations between India and Pakistan worry you?
Yes, of course. More than any other State, the developments in the bilateral relations do affect Jammu and Kashmir. When the Centre improves the relations, things get better for us. If it deteriorates, the impact is felt in the State. Clearly, after the Mumbai terror attacks, there is deterioration in the relationship, and that makes us nervous. We would very much like to see tempers cooling down on both sides.
We would expect Pakistan to do what it has promised, I mean, ensure that its territory is not used [for terrorist activities], and hope it will cooperate fully. India has promised to make out a case and also ensure that the case is credible, and we would expect Pakistan to act on that.
Do you think the Kashmiri people and their leadership have an exclusive role in resolving the Kashmir issue?
No, not exclusive but an important role to play. Most tensions between India and Pakistan is over Kashmir. And if the leadership in Kashmir, irrespective of ideological positions, can help India and Pakistan go along, that will be beneficial.Does it lead us to tripartite negotiations?
Trilateral is a sure-fire way of killing the process. There are as many in favour of it as those who are opposed to it. I think it is three sides of the table, but you see it otherwise. Islamabad talks to the separatists or the mainstream, New Delhi does the same. So it is not quite that, but we are all part of the process.
Do you think there is a realisation on the part of New Delhi about Kashmir?
I do not know. I think New Delhi realises that it has been handed a great opportunity by the people of Kashmir. They could have easily turned this election into an unqualified disaster for New Delhi. Whatever the reason, the people voted. Their vote has given legitimacy to the electoral process, and New Delhi should not ignore that.
If it does, it will be doing so at its own peril. New Delhi should recognise the opportunity and get into constructive engagement with Jammu and Kashmir, not necessarily with only those who contested the elections.