“Larger than life” is the phrase that most comes to mind when you think of Farooq Abdullah. He’s been that way for a long time, and his plan to melt away into the shadows five years ago — if you can call targeting the vice-presidency of the nation that — was never going to work. Instead, he led his party to victory in an assembly election, and handed over the reins to son Omar.
But there’s no doubt who calls the shots in the National Conference (NC), one of the few allies that stuck with Congress through the UPA regime. When Omar threatened to resign recently, it was Papa Abdullah (76) who did the fire-fighting, with his direct line to 10 Janpath.
Charisma he has in spades, and he needs every bit of it: Farooq’s foot is at perennial risk of being thrust into his mouth. It’s not every former CM who is alleged to have called his people “maha chor” — a charge he denies — or wades knee-deep into a controversy at the height of the AK Ganguly sexual harassment controversy by saying men were frightened to talk to women as they could land up in jail.
He gets away with all this due to his ability to connect with his people. “Even if he says all sorts of things, people still feel he is more connected to the Kashmiris than his son is. The son is totally disconnected,” says an NC leader who did not want to be named.
An HT staffer recalls Farooq emerging out of his car to help a labourer push his cart up an incline. Many recall him swimming with local children in Dal lake. He is flamboyant: He once drove Shabana Azmi around Dal lake on a scooter. He can equally be the courteous patriarch who addresses reporters as “beta”, and the man who walks out of a live studio interview. An interview request from HT was met with: “There are over 500 MPs. Interview them.”
It’s been a long journey from when he was made party president in 1981, and after the death of his father, the legendary Sheikh Abdullah in 1982, the CM. He continued the state’s tradition of love-hate with the Congress, and was sacked more than once. Militancy grew, and he became CM for a fifth time in 1996 under the shadow of the gun.
If the UPA flops, Farooq could be back to playing golf, his favourite pastime when out of power.