The ruling National Conference and Kashmir’s first political family - the Abdullahs are facing the heat. In the recent parliamentary elections, the party, including its patron Farooq Abdullah, lost. With a ‘no show’ in the Lok Sabha elections, the state’s oldest political party might not be able to repeat its performance of 2008 elections in 2014. With senior Abdullah fighting illness in London, chief minister Omar Abdullah is faced with one of the toughest battles in the history of the party. In a candid interview with Hindustan Times Srinagar bureau chief Toufiq Rashid, the man on the hot seat bares it all. Excerpts:
Why have you changed your constituency? You have left Ganderbal and now fighting from Sonawar and Beerwah.
I had made it clear two years ago that I will not contest from Ganderbal. The locals knew it, my party leaders knew it. I had promised Sheikh Asfaq the same when he joined us. I am seeking a fresh mandate from two constituencies that I haven’t represented. I have a very close connection with both the areas. Sonawar is my home, it’s where I live and Beerwah is a place from where my grandmother belonged to. So far Ganderbal is concerned, objective people in the area will tell you that I did a fairly good job on the development front there.
Was it an easy decision?
It wasn’t easy. Ganderbal has been the Abdullahs’ bastion for decades, but now it was high time that it be represented by a person from Ganderbal itself.
But your opposition says it shows you are not confident of a win. Doesn’t it give a wrong signal at this point that you opted for a ‘safe seat.’
It is in no way a safe seat, it is very strange that I will leave a constituency which I represent for a constituency that the PDP represents. I am contesting from Beerwah which in last two elections has been represented by the PDP, how does that logic fly? Everybody changes constituencies, when Muftis contest from Bijbehara and Anantnag, as they are their home areas, there is no hue and cry. When I do, all hell is supposed to break loose.
Experience as CM in one of the most volatile areas.
Volatile is an understatement. I had one good year and that was 2012. During the 2009 Shopian case, it was street agitations all the way. We don’t choose the circumstances that we rule in. Rest, we have to make the most of what we are given. I inherited a very polarised state after 2008 Amarnath land row. Jammu wasn’t talking to Kashmir. I didn’t choose floods, they happened. I did not choose to have the agitations but they happened. They were the results of what I inherited in 2008. Jammu and Srinagar weren’t talking to each other. Kashmir was not even willing to do business with Jammu, they were buying from Ludhiana and Jalandhar, Darbar move employees from Jammu did not want to come to Kashmir.
I am definitely finishing with a much better state than what I inherited.
But has the anti-NC mood heightened post floods?
We will really get to know what the mood is only when the votes will be counted. I truly believe given the circumstances we were working under nobody could have done better. The fact is that less than 50 people died in the entire floods in Srinagar and more people died in a single bus incident in Rajouri. Nobody died as a result of disease. We lifted tens of thousands of garbage from the city. We have had not a single outbreak of waterborne diseases. We have scientifically buried more than 1600 animal carcasses. We have vaccinated 10 lakh people in less than a month against measles.
You were not very visible.
If I had stood in the middle of the chowk, how would have that benefited the relief. The relief effort was made from the temporary secretariat in Srinagar and airport. I made sure I was present there. I travelled to areas like Anantnag. I trekked up a mountain thrice to reach out to people through radio Kashmir. Everybody said that people in Kashmir don’t die of floods they die of diseases thereafter. Whether anybody gives us credit for that or not, I will have the satisfaction that I did what I could.
The political dynamic has changed in the state post breaking alliance with the Congress.
They were with us in the Lok Sabha elections, what happened? We worked so hard for them in Jammu and they just said from the first phase that vote transfer was not possible in the Valley. I have been a very honest ally of the Congress, I didn’t ditch them and I wasn’t disloyal as an ally. They did not live up to your expectations.
The BJP is eating up the space of political parties everywhere.
In Jammu and Kashmir that is not possible. They might have made some inroads in Jammu but Kashmir is out of reach for them. There are two regional parties in Kashmir, the NC and the PDP, and we just eat each other’s space. I don’t expect the BJP to make inroads in our space.
The BJP says Kashmir is essential for their Mission 44.
I love the word Mission 44, it sounds like the next masala movie that comes out of Bollywood. It adds masala to the election campaign. But it is unrealistic. Unfortunately, they are banking on the boycott. On one hand, they do everything to discredit the separatists, on the other they need the separatists’ boycott to succeed as they are banking on the Kashmiri Pandits vote.
Do you think it will polarise the state further.
We saw a lot of polarisation in the Lok Sabha elections.
You are faced with a tough election almost alone, without your charismatic father by your side.
I have realised that I have to do a lot of things alone this time. I have to lead my party into the elections and keep an eye on my parents’ health. My father (Farooq Abdullah) is getting a kidney transplant done and my mother is the donor.
You will miss your father during campaigns.
Yeah, of course. This is the first time I’ll be campaigning alone. Nobody campaigns like him. Forget about Jammu and Kashmir, there are a few campaigners in the country that can match his charisma. You hate him or love him but can’t ignore him. When he gets on to the stage and cracks a joke, he can hold the hostile crowd. In 1996 when nobody was willing to come out, he stood in empty chowks and spoke to people. I will feel his absence in more than one ways.
So, it is a difficult election.
For sure my colleagues would help out in more than one way, but I have to lead the campaign in 87 constituencies. I don’t get to split the burden with anybody else, that’s the advantage all other parties have. In my case, it’s me, myself and me alone.
Are you afraid of people’s backlash?
I am not afraid of facing people. We have lost polls in the past as well but not saying we will lose this one. I am sure we will pull out a surprise. I am cautiously optimistic. The loss of two months cannot undermine what we have done in last six years.