Omar’s Desperate Populism

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Rethink Following the NC’s debacle in the Lok Sabha polls, CM Omar Abdullah has announced a slew of populist measures with an eye on the Assembly election
Rethink Following the NC’s debacle in the Lok Sabha polls, CM Omar Abdullah has announced a slew of populist measures with an eye on the Assembly election. Photo: Tehelka Archives

After exhausting soft-separatism of its potential as a tool to mobilise the masses, politics in the Kashmir Valley is hurtling headlong towards populism. And Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who for the better part of his current term had positioned himself as a farsighted politician, is leading this trend.

This change in Omar’s approach has most likely been triggered by the drubbing of his party, the National Conference (NC), in this year’s Lok Sabha election. The ruling party had contested from three of the six seats in the state, all in the Kashmir Valley. And it lost all three seats to its rival, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Since then, the chief minister seems to have embarked on a populist drive to regain the ground lost by his party. This is borne out by a glance at some of the measures he has announced in the past few weeks.

The Jammu & Kashmir government has withdrawn the New Recruitment Policy that had been announced in 2011. Billed as a fiscal necessity in a state that spends nearly half of its annual Budget on the salaries of its 4.5 lakh employees, the 2011 policy had prescribed that the employees would be paid only one-third of their actual salary during the first five years of service.

Moreover, Omar also gave in to a long-pending demand to raise the retirement age of state government employees from 58 to 60. For a long time, Omar had been arguing that doing this would reduce the chances of the unemployed youth in the Valley to land government jobs. According to an estimate, around 16,000 state government employees were due to retire in the next two years, which would have created an equal number of vacancies for young people in the Valley.

At the same time, Omar has also announced raising the upper age limit for joining government services from 37 to 40. This will allow a large section of the educated unemployed people in the state, who have crossed 37 years of age, to compete for government jobs.

To woo other sections of the population as well, the government has lifted the four-year ban on SMS for pre-paid mobile phone connections in the state. The ban had been imposed in June 2010, following widespread unrest in the Valley. Initially, the ban applied to both post-paid and pre-paid connections. However, six months later, the government lifted the ban for all post-paid mobile phone subscribers, but refrained from withdrawing it for pre-paid connections.

The other measures that the state government is contemplating include reduction in electricity tariff for domestic consumers, removing the ban on engaging casual labourers, regularising the services of ad-hoc and contractual employees, and fast-track recruitment to fill around 70,000 vacancies in various government departments. Political observers in the state believe that all this is being done to pre-empt what appears to be a certain defeat for the NC in the Assembly election scheduled for November.

From an already low vote share of 19 percent in the 2008 Assembly polls, the NC’s share of votes in this year’s General Election plummeted to a pathetic 11 percent. This has caused alarm bells to ring in Kashmir’s grand old party, which has been to the state what the Congress has been to the country, and coincidentally, seems to mirror the latter’s plight now.

Omar’s lurch towards no-holds-barred populism is being seen as a significant move away from the ideological politics that has hitherto been the sole vote-garnering tool in the state. Every time the NC has found itself in a tough political spot, it has taken recourse to the autonomy agenda and anti-New Delhi rhetoric in a bid to resuscitate the party. And the gambit has usually worked for the NC. A similar approach has also been the hallmark of the Opposition PDP, which has privileged its idea of self-rule for the state over its other political planks to woo the electorate.

However, in its five years in power in coalition with the Congress, the NC has all but shelved its vaunted autonomy agenda. The PDP, too, has been steadily moving towards a reluctant embrace of New Delhi. After all, currying favour with the Centre is being seen as vital to the PDP’s chances to form the next state government. Interestingly, though, the PDP has not responded to the NC’s populist measures with similar promises to the electorate. The party led by former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti seems to be secure in the knowledge that no matter what the ruling NC does, Omar’s party cannot salvage its fortunes at the fag end of its six-year term.

“For the past five years, this government had been beating the drum that the New Recruitment Policy was good for the state and that it cannot be revoked for the larger benefit of the unemployed youth,” says senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter. “Now the same government has scrapped the policy and termed it anti-youth. How can you trust it?”

However, NC leader and Omar’s political secretary Tanvir Sadiq does not think his party is indulging in populism. “All these measures were borne out of our introspection into the poll debacle. This is not populism,” says Sadiq. “We asked for feedback on the reasons for our defeat and found out that these were the issues that had alienated the people from us. Hence we set out to address the concerns by making the required changes in the policies.”

But will these measures pay any electoral dividends to the party in the forthcoming polls? There is little hope that they will, if the prevailing public sentiment is anything to go by. But political analyst Prof Gull Wani disagrees with this observation. He terms the slew of populist measures announced by the government as a “smart move” geared to reduce the anger among the people, including the youth as well as the government employees.

“These sections make a significant proportion of the population in the state,” says Wani. “There is no doubt that the measures will lead to some good, but at the moment, it’s difficult to say how much. That will become clear only after the elections.”

If Omar’s recent measures do succeed in wooing the electorate, it will mark a profound shift away from a politics that had revolved around an ideologically-tinged anti-New Delhi narrative for its survival towards a new brand of populism. “If we look at all the polls in the state over the past 25 years, beginning with the rigged 1987 elections, the discourse around the political dispute over the state has hung heavy over the scene,” says political analyst Naseer Ahmad. “But mainstream politics in the state is now changing gears and trying to deliver on more popular demands to harvest the people’s sympathy.”

Ahmad, however, does not believe that the politics around the Kashmir dispute has lost its resonance. “What has happened, instead, is that there is little credibility left in the parties striking postures about fighting for autonomy or self-rule and then doing nothing about it,” he says.

riyaz@tehelka.com

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