Pointing out that even the current Lieutenant-Governor says there was 'jungle raj’ until 2020, former Chief Minister and Central Minister Omar Abdullah tells author and journalist David Devadas that accountability has never been as low as since Central rule began in 2018.
The smirk, which used to come across as either supercilious or insecure, is gone. And he says he has “never claimed a God-given right that any party or leader should rule forever”. Yet, Omar Abdullah retains the dignified aura of privilege. Even the shirmal crisp biscuit that is served with kehwa is “straight from Pampore”, a hamlet not far from Srinagar most famous for that Kashmiri snack.
After exercising regularly at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the former Chief Minister and National Conference vice-president has emerged as a slim, tall, dapper gentleman-politician. One gets the impression that he’s maturer in more ways than the greying of his hair. For, in a time of bombast, bluster, even abuse, he speaks with measured gravitas.
On the constitutional changes, for instance, his reply is logical rather than hyperbolic: “I understand that [Article] 370 had become a hugely emotional issue across the country,” tied to property rights, “appeasement” of Muslims, and concerns about Pandits. Hence, he says, he can forgive those in the opposition who went along with making Article 370 inoperative, but he “will never be able to forgive them for backing the division of the state into Union Territories”.
'Kashmiris Allowed Their Heads to Rule Their Hearts'
Adding to that unexceptionable point about federal polity, Omar points out that parties such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and others were established “for respect and the identity of their states” and “Kejriwal talks of respect for the people of Delhi”.
He adds that “Mamata, Stalin, the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Shashi Tharoor, and some others” stood firmly for the rights of Jammu and Kashmir, but the overall Opposition response was so tepid that he has “very little enthusiasm for Opposition unity talks".
Within Kashmir, Omar says, people “allowed their heads to rule their hearts”, adding: “Give us credit for opposing constitutionally” and having “never taken the law into our hands, or advocated that”. He makes it clear that “opposing what happened on 5 August is not the same as opposing India”.
Explaining the public response, he says that those who were decidedly anti-India took what happened as a vindication. Some people welcomed it, some will never accept it, but “the lion’s share” is of those whose “heart tells them that it was wrong, but whose head tells them they must go on with life”, he says with sobriety.
Asked about the lack of ground-level party activity, he talks of “a degree of insecurity linked to party workers’ security” in light of terror attacks, but adds that there is “a clear distinction between parties” that have stood for rights and those who are closer to the Centre.
Recalling the enthusiasm there was for the talks, the bus expedition to Pakistan, and other aspects of former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s peace-making efforts, Omar remarks that Vajpayee’s “legacy is in tatters”.
Now, he says, he wouldn’t even take a +92 call [from Pakistan]. “That’s the kind of atmosphere there is today.”
Asked about the possibility that Afghans might come to Kashmir after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, he says, “I don’t see it”, and adds that the army would talk of a Taliban threat when the then government thought of drawing down the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) — when P. Chidambaram was the Home Minister (2010-12).
Nor does he think China has “wider territorial designs except pockets along the Line of Actual Control”.
'To be on Par With Other States'
On his current stand, Omar says firmly: “You give us what you took. We demand and we expect to be on par with other states, with a separate cadre of IPS, IAS, etc.” (Many expect that even if statehood is restored, Jammu & Kashmir will be more or less like Delhi, with supervening powers vested in a Lieutenant-Governor).
Omar says, “We hope the petitions [in the Supreme Court] will receive favourable consideration,” and adds that the Centre would have ensured early hearings if it was sure of its case. That it was delaying was “the clearest indication that they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on”.
As for whether statehood or elections should come first, Omar says it “needs to be discussed”.
He has concerns about what he calls a “truncated Delimitation Commission” (MPs are meant to be ex officio members, but were not even consulted). But he adds that after being announced in the Prime Minister’s 15th August speech, “elections are inevitable” and might be organised around the Uttar Pradesh elections.
'Voters Want an Alliance,’ But Cadres Chafe
About an electoral alliance of Kashmiri parties, he acknowledges that “it’s something the voters want to see” but would be difficult for cadres (who have fought alliance partners in earlier elections). He adds that he had suggested that a National Conference-Peoples Democratic Party (NC-PDP) alliance “would have been good in 2014” but “Mufti sab had different ideas”.
On whether he sees an alliance or coalition forming for the upcoming elections, Omar says, “I don’t see why not,” but points out that compromising on an agreed common list of candidates is a tough ask. It took hours of negotiations to put together a common list for the District Development Council (DDC) elections, he says.
Even after that, there were umpteen rebel or “dummy” candidates covertly fielded by alliance partners that had not been given a constituency. “Even Sajad can’t claim there were no dummy candidates from his party,” Omar adds. People’s Conference president Sajad Lone cited other parties’ dummy candidates when he broke from the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) alliance.
Some senior leaders seem to believe Sajad quit the PAGD under pressure of various sorts, and Omar evidently believes that “dummy” candidates were too common to have been the real reason. He pointed out that even the PDP’s designated district president of Beerwah, Omar’s own former Assembly constituency, fought the DDC election, but he “swallowed that”.
On governance and implementation since the Centre took over, Omar argues with the lucidity of a lawyer, “I will only quote the current Lieutenant-Governor, who said there had been jungle raj until 2020 … That says a lot about the kind of governance we have had in this place from the time the Centre took over in 2018.” The “lack of accountability” in government is “unheard of”, he adds.
He acknowledges that people would earlier say that governance used to improve under Governor’s Rule, but claims that now “the level of dissatisfaction is higher than [under] any elected government — across the mountain [in Jammu Division, too]”.
Accountability is indeed circumscribed, and most people expected more efficiency, development, and responsiveness than they have seen. Indeed, “no change”, is a common enough phrase among people, except for rising corruption.
That’s distressing, for corruption used to noticeably reduce under Governor’s or President’s rule before 2018.
Omar regretted that “BJP leaders in Jammu and Kashmir lacked the spine to stand up to their Central leaders, or they would talk about it, and talk about it vociferously” — the way various leaders across the political and social spectrum in Ladakh have done to demand state subject domicile provisions.
Perhaps his party could argue this in its campaign to try and win seats in the Jammu division.
Democracy a Priority
Arguing for democracy, Omar says it is “the individual’s right to choose” whether he or anyone else is elected. But “verdicts have been tampered with” in electing DDC chairpersons, he says, pointing out that a no-confidence motion from 10 of the 14 members of the Budgam DDC has been pending for a month-and-a-half.
That irks the PAGD a lot. For, after many pulls and pressures, the Budgam DDC chairman was installed after a toss. Three of the seven who had given the winner half the 14 votes have now backed a no-confidence motion, but the administration has not acted.
One wonders if Omar might be more responsive and timely if he were in charge of administration again. He wasn’t always noted for efficiency when he was Chief Minister (2009-14), but, remarkably, in a place of hyperbole and high emotion, Omar now seems to be widely accepted in much of Jammu and Kashmir despite his measured, grounded style.
It’s obvious that his Internet addiction remains. Sitting behind his desk, he constantly thumbs his phone.
One can hardly imagine how tough his phone de-addiction must have been in the first five weeks after the 2019 constitutional changes, when, he says, he had “no clue what was happening beyond the four walls” of the former palace where he had been locked up. But, though he looks up only occasionally, he seems focused, and answers cogently, with nuance and insight.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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