Political cauldron of J&K has exposed Omar's limitations

Political cauldron of J&K has exposed Omar's limitations

As I see it

“Would you rule yourself out as the next chief minister?” we asked Dr Abdullah. “In politics, nothing can be ruled out,” said the veteran leader with an ambitious glint. His son responded more firmly, “I think the people of the state have already delivered the mandate and I don’t think chief ministership is an issue.”

Indeed, no one thought it was. A fresh-faced, good-looking 30-something politician versus a battle scarred five time septuagenarian chief minister: it seemed a no contest. As Omar was sworn in chief minister a few days later, it appeared as if Kashmir was preparing for a generational change, an era of fear was being left behind and the valley was ready to step into a sunshine of hope.

Omar Abdullah had come to symbolise a Kashmiri yearning for a new political order. Or so we thought. More so, because there was a widespread belief that Rahul Gandhi’s intervention had been critical in ensuring that the chief ministerial baton was passed onto the son and not the father.

Both Rahul and Omar were born in the same year, 1970, to super-privileged political dynasties. They were barely walking when the 1971 war broke out and the Shimla agreement was signed, and were not even in school when the Sheikh-Indira accord was signed in 1975. In a sense, they were untouched by the tumultuous events of the 1970s; the baggage of history had bypassed them. English speaking, public school educated, both had spent a fair amount of time abroad. They were children of a new, globalising India, as much at ease in London as they would be in Lutyen’s Delhi. If the cut and thrust of democratic politics had shaped their grandparents era, this was an India which was being dominated by enterprise and technology.

Not surprisingly, young India identified with them. Two clean-cut, telegenic, tech-savvy politicians: the contrast with the older, cynical and corrupted India was much too striking to be missed. When Omar made his impassioned “I am a Muslim and I am an Indian” speech in parliament during the 2008 nuclear debate, you tube had found its first celebrity Indian neta. When Rahul spoke of the grief of Kalavati, the Vidarbha farm widow, there was instant appreciation at the emergence of a politician with a difference.
Yet, less than two years later, it’s all threatening to come unstuck. Omar finds himself being pushed to the wall, his technocrat style of functioning being criticised as remote and insensitive. A sustained campaign has begun to get him to quit in the belief that his very presence as chief minister offends Kashmiris. The street violence over the last three months in the valley is seen as an anti-Omar movement that has now been hijacked by the valley’s terror-mongers. The dawn of optimism that was sparked off on swearing in day has descended into a sunset of gloom.

Lucky Rahul
Rahul has been luckier so far. His decision not to become a minister after the UPA’s 2009 general election victory has been his protective armour, cushioning him from the relentless scrutiny that being in high office brings with it. His meetings attract large crowds and in student gatherings, there is a rockstar-like adoration for him. But the fact is, that in his home state of Uttar Pradesh — his ultimate ‘karmabhoomi’ — Mayawati and the BSP have swept all recent by-elections while the Rahul-mentored NSUI has just lost the Delhi university elections after almost eight years.

So, why has the euphoria of the youth brigade begun to evaporate? In Omar’s case, it is apparent that the complexity of Jammu and Kashmir’s political cauldron has exposed his limitations. The valley needs a 24 x7 homespun chief minister who can provide a constant sense of reassurance to his troubled people, not a detached CEO who takes his weekends off, is cocooned behind secretariat walls and isn’t there to provide a healing touch in tough times. Omar maybe well-intentioned, but he clearly isn’t the mass leader who the Kashmiris can derive inspiration from.

Rahul, by contrast, has not really been tried or tested yet. His attempts at democratising the Congress’ youth outfits and mobilising party cadres are laudable. Unlike Omar, Rahul at least appears to recognise the value of political symbolism, be it staying in a Dalit home or reaching out to tribals in Niyamgiri. Yet, at 40, Rahul cannot be the eternal young man on a discovery of India, and in states like UP, Bengal and Bihar, the Congress needs more than just the occasional flying visit to revive itself. More importantly, Rahul still hasn’t clearly spelt out his vision for new India: soundbites over the Bharat-India divide are hardly a policy prescription for the future.

Perhaps both Rahul and Omar need to move beyond their dynastic origins and become more touchy-feely ‘people politicians’. The divine right to rule is a feudal, anti-democratic principle which creates a sense of overweaning entitlement. A famous political surname is a huge advantage in Indian public life, but it also imposes equally large responsibilities.

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