In the midst of a tough electoral battle, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah takes time off to speak to Hindustan Times about the mistakes he made and what he could have done differently in his six-year tenure.
How would you rate your tenure?
Nobody can claim they achieved 100% of what they set out to do, nor would I say we were a complete failure. I am more satisfied than dissatisfied.
What do you see as your biggest mistake?It is easy to sit in judgement with the wisdom of hindsight but my first two to three years were definitely rocky. The 2010 summer agitation could have been handled differently. That phase haunts me. There won’t be a time when it won’t haunt me. Handling the agitation was more difficult than dealing with the floods.
What about it haunts you?
The fact that the state had to go through it. Geelani (Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairperson of the Hurriyat's hardline faction) started the quit Kashmir movement. I wish they’d given peace a chance, but I know why they didn’t.
So many inquiries in the past had not yielded any justice. The agitation started soon after the Machil encounter and its only now that the army officers have been found guilty. I made my mistakes at that time. I hunkered down and went into a shell and tried to deal with a law and order problem as a law and order problem. My colleagues also disappeared. I should have dealt with it politically.
So many innocent people died at that time and you did not visit a single home. Your father Farooq Abdullah would have braved angry stone pelters to visit homes, don’t you think?
I can’t change who I am. I am not an outgoing person. I’m not him, I can’t be him. He never faced that kind of a situation. I don’t know whether he would have visited homes. Look, Mehbooba Mufti (People’s Democratic Party leader) made a career out of visiting homes between 1996 and 2002, but the visits stopped once they came to power.
Don’t you think your government lost legitimacy after the 2010 agitation? It continues to be a factor even in the current election.
The PDP would certainly like to make it a factor. Punishment was handed out to us in the Lok Sabha election. Even Dr Farooq Abdullah lost. I don’t think we should be punished again. The people let out all their anger in the Parliamentary elections and we didn’t win a single seat.
Aren’t you still sensing anger? Don’t you think the Lok Sabha results were a snapshot of what awaits the National Conference in the ongoing assembly elections?
I don’t think you can extrapolate Parliament results. Wait till December 23. We are going to do a whole lot better than anybody is willing to grant us. The National Conference will spring a few surprises.
You’re not even contesting from Ganderbal, which has been an Abdullah family constituency. Isn’t it akin to running away?
Forty years is enough for a family to represent a constituency. The moment I leave it, it is perceived as fear. Where is it written that we have to work in Ganderbal ad nauseum? I lost Ganderbal in 2002 but contested from there in 2008 because I didn’t want to leave on the back of a defeat. This time, I’ve worked for the constituency and left it. I wasn’t voted out. If Mufti Saeed changing constituencies does not amount to running away, why does it for me?
Mehbooba Mufti says the assembly elections are a contest between the PDP and the BJP and that voting for the NC is a waste?
If voting for us is a waste, why run us down? Why doesn’t she just stay at home and win the elections. Why spend lakhs. If we are out of the race, save your money, don’t waste it.
Would you concede that Narendra Modi has energised the BJP in the state and it has become a factor with its Mission 44+?
Tomorrow if I have a Mission 70 in Uttar Pradesh, will it make me a factor in UP? Yes, Modi energised the BJP in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, but look at the turnout now. I don’t see the BJP opening its account in the valley and we have to see how much of a hit the Congress takes from the BJP in Jammu.
You tried hard for a phased withdrawal of AFSPA but failed. P Chidambaram recently called it an obnoxious law.
I had to carry the Centre with me. Nobody can deny that it became a victim of coalition politics (during the UPA government’s tenure). Chidambaram pushed hard but in the Cabinet Committee on Security, it was opposed by Pranab Mukherjee and AK Antony, and the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) was not willing to overrule two senior ministers.
You could have withdrawn the Disturbed Areas act but you didn’t?
If I had, it would have fallen in the Cabinet. I could have done it for drama, but I’ve never done politics for the sake of drama.
Why do young leaders like you, Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav end up disappointing?
It’s because you (media) create far more expectations from the younger lot. You don’t subject the older lot to so much scrutiny. I dare say you’ll have not even subjected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the same scrutiny. Do you scrutinise Jayalalithaa or Mayawati or the current chief minister of Gujarat? But when we sneeze it becomes front page news.
Last question. Would you concede that you are currently facing the toughest challenge of your political career?
It is the toughest because I don’t have the presence of Dr Farooq Abdullah, who is the strongest campaigner cutting across party lines. But I can’t help it.