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Frittered mandate

J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah looks increasingly out of touch with reality in his state, where he has been at the helm for 19 months. Toufiq Rashid writes.

india Updated: Aug 03, 2010, 23:53 IST
Toufiq Rashid
Toufiq Rashid
Hindustan Times

What a change 19 months can make!

When Omar Abdullah took oath as J&K'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 (Farooq Abdullah), he didn't seem wayward or non-serious and he unveiled a huge development agenda," says Gul Wani, political analyst and head of the department, political science, Kashmir University.

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 from day one.

Although its stand was vindicated by subsequent events, the perception of Abdullah being less than honest persisted.

"He has a two-member coterie who are his eyes and ears. Like him, they are inexperienced and lack political acumen," says a senior Congress leader who did not want to be named.

There is speculation that subtle non-cooperation by senior NC and some Congress ministers forced him to rely on these "friends", but he is clearly not in tune with the will of the people he is mandated to govern.

Abdullah has not visited the family of a single victim of police excesses. Except for his routine review meetings with top police and other officials, the chief minister has hardly ventured out of office.

"Omar could not connect with the people," says Wani.

"In spite of his waywardness, his father knows the valley and its people better."

During the last 54 days of turmoil, 43 people have lost their lives. The victims include 20 teenagers, two young women and two minors aged nine and eight years.

In the current crisis, the security forces met stones with bullets. Kashmiris saw this as insensitive and extreme and wondered why modern crowd-control methods weren't used.

Constant directions from North block and regular trips to Delhi make him seem powerless in his own in lair.

"On Shab-i-Meraj (a festival on the night of July 9-10), it was Union Home Secretary G K Pillai who announced the relaxation of curfew. What can be a bigger testimony that Omar Abdullah's government is powerless?" a senior Congress leader said.

In the eyes of the people, real power has shifted from Srinagar to Delhi.

"The problem is that Omar Abdullah has never lived in the Kashmir that ordinary Kashmiris live in," Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night, a book that describes a generation of Kashmiris haunted by war and loss, said recently to a foreign newspaper.

"In his Kashmir, you don't stop at military check posts, you don't raise your hands and show your identity card, you don't feel the humiliation and vulnerability that comes with living with an overbearing military presence," he had added.

It is this disconnect that he needs to correct to reclaim the mandate that is looking increasingly frayed.

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