Assembly Polls A Referendum On Omar Govt

3 November 2014
The Tribune (Chandigarh)
Arun Joshi

Jammu: In one sentence, the 2014 Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir is a definite referendum on Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Curtains have already been drawn on what he rightly termed as the 'first term' as Chief Minister, but what remains open to question is whether he will be making it to the second consecutive term. He is confident. But his critics, particularly the PDP, has read part of the answer in his decision to contest from two seats - something that no sitting Chief Minister has done ever before - and calling off decades-old relationship with his family bastion Ganderbal. There may be something more than what appears to be true at this stage. Omar has offered his own logic for choosing the constituencies of Sonwar - where he lives - and Beerwah, where his ties date back to his grandmother's days. It is a fact that he had told The Tribune months ago that he would not contest from Ganderbal. He never offered the reason for that, but he believed that each NC worker there had assumed the airs of being a Chief Minister and that was piling up problems for him and the party. The parliamentary polls had shown it amply. This time Omar has to lead from the front and deliver. His mentor and father Farooq Abdullah is not well, and he has no second in command and for that matter not even a third anywhere close to his stature. The scion of the first political family in Kashmir is all alone in this battle in which he is in the line of fire of all his opponents and erstwhile allies. One thing that no one in this political arena can ignore is that Omar is just 44. He has a long political innings to play, but it all depends on which path he will choose after the elections. If his party National Conference wins - which looks a distant dream at the moment given the public discourse against the government - then everything is fine for him. And, if not, Omar has to demonstrate rare perseverance to stay afloat in Kashmir politics. He had lost the election in 2002, but his party had 28 seats and his father was active in politics to guide him and keep the flock together. Dissenting voices were kept in check. As to what he will do post elections, this question will be best answered by the poll results. Standing in the streets of Srinagar post floods, the first impression that the residents give is that the government failed them. When translated, the government is not the whole of the government - ministers, bureaucracy and other agencies of the establishment - but Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. To all of them, he is the government. A bitter fact that he cannot escape. Floods have caused the severest of damage to the people and their properties. With winter setting in, the flood-hit people, especially those rendered homeless, are looking for someone to come to them and rescue them from the tragic situation. They want something more than mere assurances. The Supreme Court's observations that the model code of conduct be relaxed for Jammu and Kashmir has substantiated Omar's point that the code will pose hurdles in the relief and rehabilitation of the flood-affected population. This is not all about the flood-hit people only but also about the entire population of the state which has devised its own yardstick to judge the performance of Omar Abdullah. Whether they will vote for the NC or its rivals, depends on the places where they live. But all of them are of the single view that this is going to be a referendum on Omar Abdullah, who was a man of the new dawn in 2009. Now he is carrying a baggage of the past six years. Testing times: * With winter setting in, the flood-hit people, especially those rendered homeless, are looking for something more than mere assurances from Omar. * Omar has to demonstrate rare perseverance to stay afloat in Kashmir politics. He had lost the elections in 2002, but his party had 28 seats and his father was active in politics to guide him and keep the flock together. Tech-savvy, but poor with governance Before he took over as Chief Minister in January 2009, Omar was believed to be a good administrator. It was thought that he would weed out corruption, make the bureaucracy accountable and force ministers to work. The transfer industry flourishing in the state had plagued governance. There was initial enthusiasm, but his love for gadgets even in the most important meetings made ministers and bureaucrats take him non-seriously. Ministers were indulging in corrupt practices, making money and buying land or building empires, but Omar looked the other way. Even when he wanted to act, he was told pros and cons. A lobby kept away from taking action. Corruption and the transfer industry bloomed. The hallmark is that no work is done without paying bribe. CM's style different from predecessors': Two things are clear about Omar Abdullah's style. His style has been different from his predecessors. This was visible for the last six years. With his grasp over power of things told to him, Omar shows signs of impatience when someone keeps repeating things once explained. That is not the way Kashmiris used to behave. His father Farooq Abdullah had often complained that his son was not warm to people. 'Please tell him to be people-oriented and reach out to them,' Farooq had pleaded to his friends. He is an introvert who rarely shares with others his feelings about things. Man of a close circle, details never reach him. There are iron curtains between reality and him. He was often told what would please rulers. His style of staying isolated was sought to be compensated by full-page advertisements in newspapers and arranging interviews on television channels, which did more damage than good to his image. Not at ease with power partners: Omar was never comfortable with the idea of sharing power, but the electoral arithmetic of the 2008 Assembly polls made him accept that reality. Both Farooq and Omar had stated that the NC-Congress alliance from 1986 to 1990 was the biggest blunder and the party would never commit that mistake again. When the time came again, the NC wooed the Congress and the latter was keen to play the role of kingmaker. The wounds of betrayal by the PDP in the last coalition government were so fresh that the Congress opted for the NC, primarily because Rahul Gandhi and Omar were friends. Omar did not share his ideas with Congress ministers. At times, Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand was informed about important meetings through Deputy Secretary level officers. Omar took advantage of factionalism in the Congress by playing Ghulam Nabi Azad faction against Saifuddin Soz group and vice versa. At the end, both factions understood things, but it was too late. PDP remains bete noire: The NC and the PDP have mutual hatred for each other. Omar and Mehbooba Mufti shared this legacy. To begin with, Omar tried to reach out to the Muftis. After becoming the Chief Minister, he visited their place and sought their cooperation. Things worsened within weeks and reached a flashpoint when the PDP alleged his involvement in the sex scandal in the Assembly in 2009. 'I can never forget the way Mehbooba nudged Muzzaffar Hussain Beig to rise and level charges against me,' Omar had told a reporter. Mehbooba had alleged that Omar government made an attempt to get her murdered when she visited Shopian in 2009. With killings on the streets in 2010, the PDP pointed fingers at Omar. In turn, he blamed the PDP for inciting the youth. In 2014, when the floods ravaged Kashmir, the blame game started again. The PDP accused Omar and his government of negligence. The timing of elections became an issue of mutual accusations. The PDP hailed the decision the day elections were announced while Omar claimed that the opposition party was power hungry. Regional and communal bias: Omar brought with him the image of impeccable secular person and champion of regional balance. During the Amarnath land row agitation in 2008, he had ridiculed the idea of the PDP that Jammu could take two and a half districts. 'The should know that there are tens of thousands of Muslims in what they call two and a half districts,' he had then said. The way he over focused on the Kashmir valley and ignored the other regions, particularly Jammu, gave a boost to regionalism. Regionalism is at its peak now. Kashmiris distrust the people of Jammu and vice versa. There is no unifying force in the state. The NC had emerged as a pan-state party, but under the current regime, it followed the path of disintegrating the state on regional and communal lines. Omar govt in nutshell: 2009: January 5: Takes over as youngest Chief Minister; February: Confrontation with Army begins; February: Stone throwing starts in streets of Srinagar; May: Two Shopian girls allegedly raped and murdered; July: Omar resigns over sex scandal, resignation rejected; October: Raises issue of political solution of Kashmir. 2010: February-March: Stone throwing picks up in Srinagar; May: Fake encounter of three Sopore youths at Machail; June: Teenager killed, street demonstrations intensify; July: Talks of father replacing him occur, Farooq refuses; October: Omar questions accession in Assembly. 2011: April-May: Panchayat elections successful; October: Omar declares AFSPA will be withdrawn; November: Army says AFSPA cannot be withdrawn. 2012: September: Death of NC leader Haji Yusuf after the interrogation at CM's residence, judicial commission gives clean chit. 2013: February 9: Execution of Afzal Guru, sparks law and order problem. 2014: April-May: PDP & BJP win in General Election; September: Devastating floods in many parts of state, particularly Srinagar.