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A listening point, not a bridge

Is Omar Abdullah the CM of Kashmir only? His handling of the Ekta Yatra would make it seem so, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2011 19:51 IST

Whichever way it ends, the BJP Ekta Yatra has one clear loser: Omar Abdullah. In his political and administrative responses, his impetuous over-reaction and his absence of statecraft — which have given the BJP’s Yatra, tired idea as it was, a traction it would not otherwise have got — the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister has only weakened himself.

There is a context to this. In the past year, the Kashmir Valley has gone through a tense and troubled period. For this, it is easy to blame the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, Islamist radicals beyond the Hurriyat’s grip, masterminds across the Line of Control, wildcat ‘intellectuals’ from New Delhi and the history of the UPA government’s engagement with Kashmiri political opinion since 2004.

Yet, the fact is the unrest in the Valley was also substantively — though admittedly not entirely — a protest movement against a clumsy chief minister, one who had to be persuaded by the Union home ministry to venture out to his embattled state capital, and was perceived as distant and aloof even by those who had elected him in 2008. Indeed, it is sometimes unclear if the junior Abdullah has a core constituency left outside the studios of English news channels.

The BJP’s Yatra catered to segments of opinion but, to be fair, was not top of the mind for the ordinary citizen. In that sense, the national mood is very different from January 1992, when an earlier Ekta Yatra had seen Murli Manohar Joshi unfurl the national flag in Srinagar. The Congress government of the time — Jammu and Kashmir was then under President’s rule — had finessed the BJP by practically air-dropping a small party team, under heavy security, to wave the flag, make a symbolic point and leave.

Abdullah could similarly have used this Yatra to his advantage. He could have allowed it under restrictive conditions — not difficult to organise on Republic Day anyway — and placed the onus on the Union government. Simultaneously, he could have sent out a message to the ‘intifada warriors’ that provocative gestures and actions on their part were bound to evoke a counter-mobilisation by the BJP and in the India beyond the Valley. All these months, Abdullah has sought space from the national polity to build his capital and credibility among those Kashmiris who need not be violent but nevertheless have sympathy for the separatist cause. Yet, he refuses to have a two-way conversation with this section, shies away from explaining to them the limits of what India can do and what compromises it can absorb. The chief minister in Srinagar cannot just be a listening point; he needs to be a bridge.

That aside, in forcing the stoppage of trains, not letting planes take off, removing BJP leaders from even Jammu and expelling them to Punjab, Abdullah has yet again adopted a Valley-centric approach. He is also the chief minister of Jammu, isn’t he? This is a region where the BJP has significant support and where the Yatra was unlikely to cause any adverse incident. Why wasn’t a public meeting possible there?

As during the Amarnath Yatra pilgrim shelter dispute, Abdullah has been extremely careful with Valley sensitivities but unmindful of Jammu’s concerns. His speech in Parliament in July 2008 — when the first UPA government faced a vote of confidence — was cheered in Valley-obsessed circles in New Delhi but went down extremely badly in Jammu.

In private conversations, UPA ministers admit Abdullah is getting carried away but are letting him make his mistakes. No doubt North Block will send him a bill after the Yatra chapter is over.

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator)

*The views expressed by the author are personal