In the face of growing anti-incumbency, Omar Abdullah-led National Conference (NC) will head to the five-phase assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir with the odds heavily stacked against it.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the dates for the assembly polls starting November 25 despite chief minister Omar Abdullah’s plea for deferment in view of the devastation caused by the recent floods.
On the other hand, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is hoping to wrest power, riding on people’s resentment and anger against the NC government. BJP, meanwhile, is expecting a windfall despite the lack of support base in the Valley. In the season of change, chief minister Omar Abdullah is faced with what can be one of the toughest battles at hand--first time without his charismatic father and party patron Farooq Abdullah by his side.
The fact that Omar and his cabinet became conspicuous by their absence during the first few days of floods which hit the valley in the first week of September and people felt his government's response to relief and rehabilitation failed expectations; makes the task at hand even difficult.
Omar had to convince people of his defence that being visible would have not helped relief and rehabilitation. “There were two places of action, one the make shift secretariat and another airport where the relief material was coming. I was present at both places,” he told Hindustan Times.
To it, the junior Abdullah has to juggle between trying to revive the ‘fate’ of his party and keeping an eye on his parents’ health -- senior Abdullah has to undergo a kidney transplant, while his wife Moily Abdullah (Omar's mother) is the donor. “I have to keep an eye on my parents’ health and campaign for almost 87 seats alone,” the junior Abdullah told Hindustan Times.
Omar, who seeks re-election as a chief minister, has a ‘herculean task at hand’. In the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, the PDP and the BJP had trounced the NC and Congress, winning three Lok Sabha seats each.
The political pundits, however, believe the assembly might not throw many surprises. Many believe NC will not do as bad as in the Lok Sabha elections. Out of 46 assembly segments in the valley, NC had managed to win in just six. The number if translated into the assembly might be much less than the 28 seats in 2008 elections.
The 2014 elections in the state, besides being a decisive battle for the immediate relevance of the party, seem like a ‘personal test of nerves’' for the Abdullah scion.
When Omar Abdullah took oath as Jammu and Kashmir's 11th chief minister in January 2009, he was seen as a symbol of hope, a clean, upright politician, untainted by past baggage -- a white knight, who would restore a troubled paradise its peace of mind.
The people of Kashmir, weary from more than two decades of turmoil, had spoken in the elections that brought him to power: They wanted change, they wanted peace and above all, they wanted a future -- and they wanted Abdullah's National Conference and the Congress to deliver it.
The young CM promised to reconnect with the man on the street in the manner of his grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the state's first post-Independence "prime minister" and later, chief minister.
He began well — surprise checks at hospitals, on-the-spot suspensions for dereliction of duty and development plans showed he meant business. Unlike his father, he didn't seem wayward or non-serious and he unveiled a huge developmental agenda.
Then, things began to fall away. Abdullah's first brush with street protests came in February 2009, with the killing of three persons in Bomai in north Kashmir. The government's handling of the fallout was widely seen as inadequate.
Then came the Shopian rape and murder case, where the government was perceived as being party to a cover-up. Although its stand was vindicated by subsequent events, the perception of Abdullah persisted.
The ultimate test for the young Abdullah came during 2010 street protests in which 113 youth were killed. The security forces met stones with bullets. Those killed included men in 20's, teenagers, two minors and two young women.
Anger seethed as forces failed to use any modern methods of quelling protests. Although Abdullah expressed dismay over each death, he did not visit a single family of the victims. Except for his routine review meetings with top police and other officials, the chief minister hardly ventured out of office.
Constant directions from North block and regular trips to Delhi made him seem powerless in his own lair. A curfew relaxation scheduled announced by union home secretary GK Pillai sitting in Delhi was the last nail. In the eyes of the people, real power had shifted from Srinagar to Delhi.
Omar, political experts like HOD political science in Kashmir University, Professor Gul Wani says “could not connect with the people”.
Although the years that followed were better as Omar Abdullah government saw record numbers of tourists coming to valley as militancy dropped to all time low.
The government handled major crisis like Afzal Guru's hanging well. Though the hanging was followed by long spell of protests, which lasted for more than a month, Omar ensured that youth did not fall to bullets on the roads.
In what can be termed as the ‘most eventful’ tenure, the chief minister had to clear his name of charges of “torture of a party worker” Haji Yousuf levied by the opposition. Yousuf had died of heart attack, a few hours after coming out of the CM residence in Gupkar in Srinagar.
“I have had just one good year, that is 2012,” he said in an interview to Hindustan Times.
According to Professor Wani, although people were not happy with government’s response to floods, Omar, he believed was seen “trying and struggling”. “People were not happy because, the government and even National Conference as a party seemed missing, but in the eyes of many, Omar was seen trying. He actually seemed struggling,” he added.
While Omar’s recent decision to quit his traditional seat Ganderbal for Sonawar and Beerwah was called a ‘safe bet’ by his opposition, many feel he might be able to pull a surprise in central Kashmir's Beerwah (a segment won by PDP in the last election). Although Beerwah still looks strong for PDP, the fact that many believe it was because of Omar's intervention that the army's lease of Tosimadan firing range was not extended, might go in his favour.
While Abdullah may still bet on his traditional vote bank and vast cadre base, it is the youth who may pose a problem. “Unemployment, corruption, torture and killing of youth was the highlight of Omar Abdullah regime,” says PDP party spokesman Nayeem Akhtar.
Professor Wani feels that while Omar has matured as a leader of the party, he still is unable to connect properly with his people.
“It is this disconnect that he needs to correct to reclaim the mandate that is looking increasingly frayed,” says Prof Wani.
Level of militancy dropped to all time low: Omar
Taking credit about of the decline in militancy in the state, chief minister Omar Abdullah says peace has led to development, which in turn has benefited the people of the state. In an interview to HT, Omar talks about his highs and lows as Jammu and Kashmir chief minister. Excerpts:
What do you see as high?
The level of militancy has declined by 70% and it has been because of the synergy between police, paramilitary and army. The peace has led to more development which has benefited more people. We had over 50 lakh tourists compared to 23 lakh during the PDP-Congress regime (2002 to 2008).
We are much closer to normalcy than we were in the last regime. On the governance side, we set up institutions. We gave the state Public Service Delivery Act, Right to Information, Vigilance Commission and Accountability Commission.
We have done investments in the power sector. It won't be visible now, but in some years, the state would be self-sufficient in terms of power.
We held the first phase of panchayat elections. The second phase could not be conducted because of Congress's stand on various issues. We also increased the age of recruitment and retirement.
We have done a lot of work in developing education and health infrastructure.
What is it that you could have done, but didn't manage?
I wanted a phased revocation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (ASFPA). I know there has been 70% reduction in militancy. The then home minister (Mr P Chidambaram) was supporting the revocation. Those who opposed first said there were street agitations and then they said Amerca is shifting out of Afghanistan. Mark my word, now ISIS will become the reason for not withdrawing ASFPA.
My coalition partners weren't supportive. It was their compulsion because of their competition with BJP.
What is your experience as CM in one of the most volatile areas?
Volatile is an understatement. I had one good year and that in 2012. We don't get to choose the circumstances that we rule in. We have to make the most of what we are given. I inherited a 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. Kashmir was not even willing to do business with Jammu. They were buying from Ludhiana and Jalandhar.
I am most definitely finishing with a much better state than what I inherited.
Constituency: Sonawar and Beerwah
Party: National Conference
Omar studied at Burn Hall School, Srinagar and then at Lawrence School, Sanawar. He is an alumnus of Sydenham College, Mumbai (where he did his B.Com.)
Assets: Hasn't filed nomination paper till date.
Criminal record: Nil.
Controversies: He was not seen on the same page with the army on the issue of demilitarisation and revocation of ASFPA. On more than one occasions, the CM and the security forces seemed at logger heads.
Won 28 seats was single largest party.
2014: Lok Sabha elections
Lost all the three seats that NC contested.
Dip in vote share from 19.11% in 2009 to 11% in 2014.
Nayeem Akhtar: PDP Spokesman
Dismal is the only word I will use to describe the chief minister and his regime. He is leaving the state in worse conditions that what he had inherited. During his six-year regime, the state saw innumerable problems and he failed to impress anybody during the time. He is now leaving his seat. However he could not find a safe seat and therefore contesting on two seats. Not only has his term as CM been the worst, but he has also presided over the liquidation of his party.
Nasir Aslam, Provisional President Kashmir Division, NC
He is a visionary leader who is selfless and wants to serve the people of the state to the best of his ability. His tenure was a golden period with respect to development and institutional strengthening. Formation of administrative units is a historical step in Kashmir.