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Can the Abdullahs tide over incumbency woes?

The political weather in Jammu and Kashmir has undergone a sea change. Charges of misgovernance, raging unemployment and two consecutive summers of killings and turmoil have riled the NC’s tenure.

india Updated: May 16, 2014 09:29 IST
Toufiq Rashid

On a cold December day of 2008, Farooq Abdullah returned to Srinagar from New Delhi with a smugness that only an election romp can bring to a veteran politician.

Flamboyant, yet casual, the senior Abdullah broke out the best of his showmanship: hugging party workers, directing TV crews where to place cameras and be cryptic about his, and his party National Conference’s, next moves.

After a day of suspense, punctuated with conflicting hints, the septuagenarian leader eventually announced his son Omar was ‘Kashmir's future’. And the people accepted the young Abdullah with open hearts as he bought with him the promise of development and prosperity. Thus, Omar became the youngest chief minister of the country.

The National Conference was formed in 1932 by Sheikh Abdullah as the Muslim Conference and later rechristened National Conference in 1939. For decades after independence, Sheikh dominated the electoral process in the state and was considered to be the tallest leader Kashmir had ever seen.

The party was subsequently led by Sheikh's son Farooq Abdullah (1981-2002) and his son Omar Abdullah(2002-2009). Farooq was again made the President of the party in 2009.

Cut to today, and the political weather in Jammu & Kashmir has undergone a sea change. Charges of misgovernance, raging unemployment and two consecutive summers of killings and turmoil have riled the NC’s tenure. To add to it, the younger Abdullah has critics accusing him of being too aloof, and disconnected with his people.

For the Abdullahs, this Lok Sabha may make or break their chances in the assembly elections due in November.

The stakes are particularly high for the 77-year-old Abullah Sr. As the Abdullah family patriarch, his bid to seek reelection from the prestigious Srinagar constituency was never a test. The constituency has since 1983 been represented by the family.

But this time, he appears to be facing a tough challenge from a PDP lightweight. A win is a must- both for his own prestigious also for the political future of his son Omar.

With the anti-incumbency factor being the proverbial elephant in the room, the Abdullahs’ Lok Sabha campaign has pivoted around the ‘larger national issues of minority rights’ and stopping the ‘anti-Muslim’ BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

Read: BJP search for new allies linked to numbers in RS?

Its archrival PDP sees the rhetoric as a convenient ‘escape route’. “They have nothing to showcase so they make Modi an issue,” says Nayeem Akhtar, PDP’s spokesman.

In order to limit the influence of both PDP in Kashmir and BJP in the Jammu region, the party has entered into a pre-poll seat sharing agreement with the Congress. And the alliance may also help the NC stem the tide of anti-incumbency to some degree.

Giving it some ammunition is PDP’s apparent overtures towards the BJP. The NC is trying to take on the opposition suggesting a secret pact with BJP, following PDP's public praises for Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government.

As the PDP claims to be gathering momentum – its chief Mehbooba Mufti is emerging strong in South Kashmir as is another PDP stalwart Muzaffar Beigh who is raking up support in the North, the Abdullahs have reason to worry.

Its traditional vote-bank, the youth seem disillusioned. A good majority of youth in places such as Ganderbal (part of the Srinagar constituency) -- an Abdullah stronghold since the time of party founder Sheikh Abdullah -- were seen voting for change.

A PDP resurgence-NC defeat in Lok Sabha might set the political tone for the winter elections as well. For some time, at least, it may end the ‘dynasty rule’ of Srinagar, which the rivals claim has been neglected by the Abdullah family.

In 1996, when the state emerged from President’s Rule, PDP rode the anti-Abdullah sentiment to hand a shock defeat to the family. Six years later, 2002 saw a similar story when Mehbooba Mufti emerged a force to reckon with, having voted the Abdullahs out of power again.

And now, in 2014, the party may pull off another surprise. It has already made significant headway into traditional NC bastions, among them the vote-base in Khanyar in the old city---the only assembly segment which sees moderate to brisk voting.

In North Kashmir which is another stronghold of the Abdullahs’ party, a PDP ‘invasion’ is seen in Kupwara, Tangmarg, Sumbal and even Sonawari. Zareena a female voter from Sonawari area in North Kashmir said she voted for change as she ‘never saw’ either her MP or the chief minister in last five years. “Look at us, we are only 18 kilometers from Srinagar but it seems we live in pre historic times”, she says.

The elderly in her area however still swear by the National Conference and their support might eventually see the party through. “The younger generation has no idea who Sheikh Sahib was. Their vote doesn't matter,” said Ghulam Ahmad on the voting day on May 7.

The NC, however is not willing to concede defeat. “We will repeat 2009 even as PDP raises the bogey of rigging and boycott. I am sure they are on the losing side,”' Omar Abdullah told Hindustan Times in an interview after the polling in the first phase on April 24.