The Method Behind Omar’s Madness

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has noticeably taken on Narendra Modi during the ongoing election campaign. Though his party, the National Conference, does not compete with the BJP for political space in the state, Omar has made Modi the focal point of his poll strategy. There are two ways he has gone about this: one, attack Modi directly for his controversial remarks. And second, brand the PDP a clandestine ally of the BJP. So, every day, Omar and his father Farooq create a drumbeat of statements that seek to play into the prevailing Modi paranoia.

For Omar, this has its advantages: one, it turns Kashmir into an akhara of national politics, thereby obviating the need to answer about local issues. Second, and more importantly, it doesn’t require Omar to contest on the record of his own government, which has little to brag about. So, while he slams Modi for the massacre of Muslims in Assam, he did little to prevent the killings of 120 youth — most of them teenagers — over a period of five months in 2010. And none of them was a militant. All were killed for protesting and pelting stones. No security personnel was ever held responsible. The inquiry commission has long been shelved without doing anything worthwhile. The state government also refused to extend the panel’s mandate to probe all 120 killings. Since then, there have been intermittent killings of a young protester or two — one was killed on 30 April, the day Srinagar went to the polls — but nobody has been punished.

In its six years in power, the NC – Congress coalition has led Kashmir in a fairly routine way. The government has been singularly deficient of a theme, an imaginative political narrative that would have lent it a sense of purpose and direction. The governance itself was reduced to a banal, bureaucratic and self-sustaining mechanism shot through with corruption. There is no sense of a visible or invisible hand that guides the process along. Except for Omar’s tweets, nobody speaks, save for the occasional dissonance of his uncle Mustafa Kamal, who shoots his mouth now and then and lands Omar in embarrassing situations.

Coming back to Omar’s Modi fixation, will it win him the election in the Valley? For one, while Modi has been the centre of an ambivalent public attention in the Valley, he is not relevant in the local political context. Therefore, Omar’s attempt to artificially transplant him to the Valley is of little political utility. Pitting himself against Modi, however, personally transports him to the national scene. He becomes a part of the unfolding larger binary of secular vs communal political divide, a strategy that identifies him more closely with the Congress, a party that has become his sole guarantee to remain in power. And it is with the Congress partnership that Omar hopes to trump the anti-incumbency factor. This strategy also fits into Omar’s need to keep the PDP at bay, which his party hopes may not survive another six-year stint in the Opposition, a prospect that could once again enable the NC to monopolise the political scene in the Valley.

But this politics hardly takes into account the shifting ground situation in the Valley. The election campaign in south Kashmir has been eye-opening. Wherever politicians went, more often than not, they were greeted by protests led by small knots of youth, pelting stones and shouting pro-Azadi slogans. At many places, the youth barred the movement of political processions, forcing the parties to take a detour. And on polling day, the same youth dissuaded villagers from voting.

This reveals that a certain discreet yet profound change is underway in the way separatist politics operates in the Valley. Its main operation is no longer limited to a few localities of Srinagar. There is a certain diffusion that is taking place, with the new generation in the countryside taking cue from the urban centres. The separatism that survived only on sentiments and sympathisers is now drawing grassroots activists, who are not content with an odd shutdown or two but also want to implement a political plan of action. And their method appears both deliberate and spontaneous, organised, networked and also unstructured and unplanned. While Omar and his father work up a discourse in Kashmir around Modi, this is a reality that the CM prefers not only to ignore but to be rather unaware of.

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