On 26 July, Omar Abdullah made a quick exit from the iftar party that the National Conference had organised for journalists in Srinagar. He didn’t pay the customary attention to guests, talked furtively to a few who had huddled around him as he hunched over a sparse plate of kebab and onion chutney. And then hurried away from the venue with his security detail rushing to catch up.
Though this wasn’t distinctly uncharacteristic of him, Omar’s disinclination to mingle with scribes came as a surprise. He was seen as withdrawn and reserved when one expected him to be positive and forthcoming. And it did no good to his fast fraying political image.
When he took over as the CM of Jammu & Kashmir in 2009 in the wake of his stirring speech in Parliament where he asserted that there was no contradiction between being a Muslim and an Indian, Omar was expected to change the face of J&K politics. His sensitive articulation of J&K’s troubled situation helped him forge an instant connection with the people, overriding the inherent disadvantage of his high-profile upbringing, antiseptically removed from the everyday play of Kashmiri life suffused with conflict and violence.
Another factor in his favour was that his personality didn’t mirror that of his father Farooq Abdullah, a crucial difference that came as a welcome break from the past and its treacheries. And he built upon it by becoming the state’s most accessible and approachable CM.
In the first year, he would take calls from one and all. Text him and you could be assured of a reply. Activists and the common man flaunted his solicitous replies to their queries on their cell phones.
Omar would be at his responsive best in the event of any human rights violation. A month into his term, when the army killed two civilians in north Kashmir’s Bomai village, he ensured that the Rashtriya Rifles camp was shifted. When two women were allegedly raped and murdered in Shopian, he promptly held a press meet to show that he was serious about the probe — albeit he did not help his cause when he corroborated the then preliminary police claim that the women had drowned.
But the protests that followed the incident left Omar reeling. And a five-month-long Azadi ferment that came next not only hobbled his regime but also left him bruised. The massacre of 120 youth — most of them teenagers — eclipsed his nascent charisma. He pledged to probe the killings but never did.
The consequent public alienation pushed Omar to the margins. He continued as the CM — his chair saved by Rahul Gandhi from an emerging internal intrigue — but he struggled to reclaim his leadership. Far from comprehending Kashmir’s overarching political dimensions, he was hemmed in by it.
What went wrong was his relapse, halfway through his term, into the long-accustomed politics of the state; a politics that looks more towards the Centre as the wellspring of power in J&K than the people of the state.
More damagingly, it is a politics that presupposes if you could somehow manage a minimal peace in the state, just enough to keep an edgy Centre happy, you could get away with rank misgovernance and endemic corruption. And it is a politics that believes in compromise.
The past three years of Omar’s reign highlight a dutiful adherence to this age-old practice. At times when he was expected to stand up, say against human rights violations, he chose silence. When he exhibited signs of standing up, say on the AFSPA and Afzal Guru’s hanging, he soon reconciled to the state of affairs. In case of the government actions that infuriated the people, say the disproportion in the distribution of administrative units between the Kashmir Valley and Jammu, he chose not to explain, let alone take corrective actions.
Omar still launches into pious homilies against the expediencies of politics but is the first to kowtow to political calculations. After his party’s rout in the General Election, he embarked on populist measures, starting with increasing the retirement age of government employees, to salvage lost ground.
And he isn’t accessible anymore. He no longer takes calls from everyone, no longer responds to texts or replies to emails. This has made many journalists in the Valley sore, some of whom have had to go through a long circuitous route of placing a request for a meeting or an interview, only to hit a wall. Maybe that is why most of them invited to his iftar party gave it a miss.