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Will he deliver?

india Updated: Jan 01, 2009 23:18 IST
Vinod Sharma

He has a certain chemistry going with Rahul Gandhi. But he got on merit the job he has in Jammu and Kashmir. He wants civil servants to serve the people—not his party. He has little use for political vendetta and is committed to fighting corruption. Power isn’t for him a means to making money.

Meet Omar Abdullah, the CM-designate of J&K who celebrated the idea that’s India in his memorable July 22 speech supporting PM Manmohan Singh’s trust-vote in Parliament: “I’m a Muslim and I am an Indian and I don’t see any distinction between the two…”

Omar has to meet in Srinagar the expectations he raised in Delhi. If he succeeds, he could well be a role model for the burgeoning urban middle classes that viewed politics as the last refuge of scoundrels until 26/11. An instant u-tube chartbuster, his two-minute speech epitomized hope, a prodigious vision so relatable with the aspirations of a youthful India.

A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey found 37 per cent youth with “high to moderate” interest in politics. But that was pre-Mumbai. Differential data isn’t readily available on the poll turnout in Delhi and Rajasthan after the terrorist assault. The presumption of younger electorate’s increased urge for governance is based on the heated public debate in the aftermath of Mumbai.

The cynicism that drove the post-Mumbai discourse doesn’t come naturally to Omar. He’s combative, not belligerent. His idiom so quickly lapped up by his audience has to it a discernible freshness, a pleasantly infectious novelty: “I see no reason why I as a Muslim have to fear the (nuclear) deal. It’s a deal between, we hope, two countries that in the future will be two equals.”

Flashes these of Barack Obama’s evocative oratory? A language the Gen-X understands: erudite, comprehensible even compulsive, in a very cosmopolitan way?

Comparisons could be odious. What sets him apart is his articulation of Kashmiri aspirations without the limitations of a regional chieftain. “The enemies of Indian Muslims aren’t the Americans or deals like this,” he said. “The enemies of Indian Muslims are the enemies of all poor people of India: poverty, hunger, unemployment...and absence of voice. It’s that we are against— the effort to crush our voice!”

The debate in the House crowded by niche players had the Abdullah family scion stand taller: modern, inclusive, secular. Little wonder that his elevation as CM has re-energized age-based debates on blogs, in chat rooms and across corporate offices.

There is skepticism despite all the right noises he has made about giving the Kashmiri youth a stake in India, the uprooted Kashmiri Pundits a share in power.

The imponderable? Will the PDP and BJP accept defeat with the grace John McCain showed on being humbled by Obama?

Former Harvard University professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta has doubts. “A lot of Gen-X politicians are business as usual,” he said, predicating Omar’s success on his capacity to take risks, create new policy paradigms and build convergences between conflicting social groups and regions.

“Being smart isn’t enough. It takes a lot more to be inclusive across party lines,” said Mehta.

Omar undoubtedly has to deliver on the ground to change the way urban India looks at the political class: corrupt, inept limpets who wouldn’t let go of the chair.

But can one swallow make a summer? Seasoned Kashmir watchers count among Omar’s best assets his clean image, penchant for technology and trans-J&K approach. “He’s the most acceptable face in Kashmir,” remarked radio-journalist Vijay Raina. “He’ll have to set the agenda before his rivals become tricky.”

Even those who do not see Omar as a trendsetter agree the NC-Congress combine’s success was crucial for Kashmir’s future. “Good, equitable governance alone can address alienation that feeds militancy,” said former additional solicitor general Devendra Dwivedi. “What works in politics is a blend of youth and experience. Even Obama has co-opted experienced people from Bush’s team.” At 38, Omar is much younger than the 47-year-old President-elect of the US. But as J&K CM, he’d be watched equally closely, in India and abroad. There’s a good possibility of their paths converging. For Obama thinks Kashmir is as much his business in the global fight against terror.

That makes doubly important Omar’s task of addressing Kashmiri alienation without a backlash from the deeply saffronized Jammu.