Farooq, the eternal prodigal

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

He is the most conspicuous candidate in the forthcoming General Election in Jammu & Kashmir, who is tipped to retain his seat from Srinagar, the state’s summer capital. But he is also the least popular. That is if the mood on the street and also on social media sites, where he is daily lampooned, is any indication. But National Conference president Farooq Abdullah couldn’t care less. While he will readily make politically correct noises to rally the people, he will not think twice before abusing them.

“Kashmiris are Mahachors,” he said recently, alluding to incidence of electricity theft. He made the comment, since denied by him and his party, just around the time poll dates were being announced. The Valley erupted at his slight. The comment made headlines in the local press and spawned a slew of angry opinion pieces. The issue also triggered a ruckus in the Assembly. PDP MLAs shouted slogans, disrupted House proceedings and demanded an apology.

A few weeks on, Abdullah has already put the episode behind him and plunged headlong into the election campaign. A few days ago, when he arrived at the NC HQ in Srinagar to formally launch his campaign, he was surrounded by a group of women party workers who sang the traditional Kashmiri wedding song, Wanwun. Hopped up on the musical reception, Abdullah switched to campaign mode and harked back to the NC’s age-old, albeit now credibility-challenged, slogans on autonomy for Kashmir.

“I won’t let Kashmir merge with India,” said Abdullah. “I will shout from my grave to protect Article 370.” This from a leader who chose to continue as an NDA ally in 1999 when his autonomy resolution passed by a majority in the Assembly was summarily trashed by New Delhi. Ever since, autonomy has remained a ritual war cry that is deceitfully resurrected around the time of polls and conveniently forgotten as the exercise ends.

Same is the case with AFSPA, the demand for whose revocation, or at the least a phased withdrawal, is now a boilerplate statement issued periodically, more for effect and as a reiteration of a stated party policy. Any action on the matter is aborted by a veto by the army, which holds that Kashmir is dormant with militancy even when, in material terms, the violence has declined.

True, the NC is hobbled by the constraints of coalition politics, with its political partner in the state, Congress, looking at the issues through a national political prism. But the NC hasn’t been any different when it had the absolute majority — say from 1996 to 2002. Abdullah ran a roughneck, corrupt administration ending in his party’s crushing defeat in the landmark 2002 Assembly polls.

Despite his temperamental excesses, his see-saw between extreme political postures and his love for play and pleasure with a seamlessly bad governance to boot, Abdullah continues to retain his position as the most familiar, if not the popular, politician of the state. He can capriciously drift in one direction, retrace his steps fast and then swerve to another direction. And get away with it.

In the past, he has gotten away with praise for Narendra Modi, at one point of time defending him soon after the 2002 riots. In 2011, while addressing a gathering in Ahmedabad, Abdullah said he longed for the day when he would see Allah in Modi’s eyes. What is more, soon after Afzal Guru was hanged last year, Abdullah said Guru had got a fair trial, overturning his son’s outrage over the repugnant execution.

As CM through the 1990s, Abdullah would talk of distance from New Delhi one day and the day after plead for bombing Pakistan out of existence. And yes, he would aggravate the pain of human rights abuse in the state by the police and security personnel by justifying these as a legitimate response to the then rampant militancy. But then, it was Abdullah also who personally ensured that the Pathribal fake encounter was exposed by ordering the exhumation of five graves.

Abdullah continues to be a political enigma — his own version of an anti-political politician and a political anti-politician. He can be alternately pro- and anti-New Delhi, traverse seamlessly the distance from allegiance to his religion to commitment to secularism to the praise of the right-wing. And through it all, he not only escapes unscathed but goes from strength to political strength.



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