Fayyaz, “the surgeon”, dissects the chief ministership of Mr. Omar Abdullah
(Mr. Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, 48, was born in Bodina, Budgam, and received his primary and secondary education in Budgam and later at Amar Singh College, Srinagar. He completed his Master’s degree in Kashmiri language and literature from the University of Kashmir in 1987. After working with Rashtriya Sahara and Kashmir Times in 1993-94, and later for 13 years as Srinagar Bureau Chief of Daily Excelsior, he is woking as Resident Editor/ Srinagar Bureau Chief of Jammu-based English daily Early Times since April 2009. He is also a filmmaker whose forte in audio-visual media is Kashmir’s composite culture, heritage, ecology and social issues. Since February 2008, he has been regularly anchoring Take One Television’s bi-weekly hard talk show “Face To Face With Ahmed Ali Fayyaz” which is watched by more than three million viewers in Srinagar, Jammu and other urban areas of Jammu & Kashmir.)
What went wrong with Omar’s Kashmir?
SRINAGAR: Phenomenal success of the Assembly elections of 2008 set in a wave of jubilation and euphoria in the mainstream political circles and establishment from Srinagar to New Delhi. A little over 61% of the electorate had exercised their franchise—over 1700,000 of them in Kashmir valley alone—without any sort of coercion, fist time since 1987. Few among the political analysts and very senior politicians had expected this historic turnout in an Indian democratic exercise held in weeks of a mass street agitation in the Valley.
Most of the people, who participated in the election, as well as many of those who did not, for varied reasons, seemed to have reasons behind their relief. The elections reversed the situation of an unprecedented regional and communal divide witnessed in the middle of 2008. There was a lot of jubilation over Omar Abdullah becoming the country’s youngest Chief Minister. They thought the young Chief Minister understood the importance of blending employment opportunities, development and political resolution of the Kashmir issue by strengthening dialogue between India and Pakistan.
In most of his statements during the election campaign, Omar had underscored the need of responsive governance and specified “better roads, power supplies, drinking water, healthcare and qualitative education” as the major indicators of the government’s performance.
Suffering from the disadvantage of being a non-resident politician, whose importance stemmed from his dynastic background, Omar demonstrated his lack of political understanding and administrative acumen from his day one in office. While bargaining partnership with Congress and later making two selections of his Council of Ministers, he made blatant mistakes.
Obviously, in lieu of his full six-year term as Chief Minister, he handed almost all of his flagship portfolios—roads, water, health, education—to the coalition partner, Congress. He lacked numerical strength to form the government of his own but still had nearly double the seats Mufti Mohammad Sayeed possessed in November 2002. Shepherd of the thin herd of 16 in a House of 87, Mufti did not budge an inch from his cardinal demand of holding the first half of his coalition government’s term. He made Congress bow with his obduracy for a full month after declaration of the results.
Omar also humiliated the most influential of his party colleagues, including the one who had secured highest number of votes among more than 2,000 contestants in Kashmir, by keeping them out of his Cabinet. Those inducted were no less disappointed over their ‘insignificant’ portfolios. Bureaucrats and officials, known for their rank opportunism, political loyalty and proximity to the Opposition, managed to retain key positions in Omar-led coalition government.
Omar’s father, Dr Farooq Abdullah, who shifted to the national platform, was also appointed NC’s President. Party’s organizational structure passed through a fresh membership drive but the key office bearers were never appointed. Omar’s predicament became public last month when, during the course of a television interview, he said that he had more time than his father to operate as the NC’s President.
Consequently, an effective delivery system, consistent with NC’s election manifesto, vision document and political ideology, failed to be in place. CM never seemed to be having liaison with his party rank and file, including the seniormost legislators and Ministers of his government. Like total inertia during the days of pandemonium over Shopian in 2008, NC’s leaders, legislators and Ministers seldom held a deliberation over the current spate of street turmoil until it blew into a catastrophe two months ago.
Within weeks of his taking over in January 2009, complacency and nonchalance was abundantly in evidence. Chief Minister attended little business in the maiden session of the legislature. He enjoyed alpine skiing over Afarwat on the day of his first reply on the Governor’s address. His notes had been saved meticulously by his officials and aides and the speech was pretty emphatic but his absence from the House was marked with disdain by the Opposition and with concern by the Treasury Benches.
Over the months, Omar seemed to believe that connections with New Delhi were more important than the liaison with his electors in the state. This led almost to a political vacuum and system failure in governance. Ignominiously marginalized by the elections, Valley’s separatist leadership found it easier to stage a comeback. Growing disillusionment among the masses came handy to hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani who literally wept over the Kashmiris’ infidelity of participating in the 2008 elections at a news conference after his release from jail and seemed to be desperately looking for issues until as recently as in May 2010.
Geelani, who was seen using his elbow to grab a bit of the political space with the vegetarian issue of restricting Amarnath pilgrimage to 15 days, with the real concern on ecology, has filled up the vacuum with aplomb and grown as an undisputed king of Kashmir’s secessionist politics in the last two months. He is now deciding on what days Omar and his Cabinet Ministers can move on the roads in Kashmir and when the government’s offices should open and close.
Hardliner Geelani flourished only after 2002
It was more than on one occasion that New Delhi attempted to neutralize Paklistan’s plebiscite argument on the international diplomacy front with the participation of the Kashmiris in Assembly elections of 2008. Diminishing militancy was simultaneously celebrated as an achievement. Having meticulously bargained power with National Conference (NC), Congress refused to come out of its complacency. Rather than taking political initiatives from the commanding position it enjoyed first time in the last several years, Congress-led UPA government made hardly any attempt to perceive the back swing in Omar Abdullah’s popularity in the Valley.
Omar alone was never to blame for the reverse. For months, he was beguiled into the uncouth romanticism by the Centre. The attribute of the “youngest Chief Minister’ did not go till the poor politician’s hair turned grey a year later. As lately as on June 7th this year, Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, disappointed many in the Valley by restricting his offer of dialogue to only those sections “who are against violence and bloodshed”. During his visit in Srinagar next day, he described Omar “not only the youngest but also the most competent Chief Minister”. Men like Narendra Modi and even women like Shiela Dixit may not have taken ill of the appreciation as they knew that the Prime Minister’s assessment was based on a PowerPoint presentation—powerful indeed—but not on the real parameters of governance and development.
Earlier, these days last year, Manmohan Singh’s Minister of Home Affairs, P Chidambaram, had set off the balloon of “quiet diplomacy” in Srinagar. That whole drama of “quiet diplomacy” ended with anti-climax when unidentified persons attacked Hurriyat dove, Fazal Haq Qureishi, in vicinity of his residence in Soura.
Sustained marginalization of so-called moderates in the Valley’s separatist camp led to proportionate swelling of hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s influence. Octogenarian Geelani knew that New Delhi’s permissiveness of the hate-India sentiment in Jammu & Kashmir was to the best of his advantage. He also perceived weakness of the rulers in Srinagar to showcase soft corner for the hardliners. It took him just months to realize that the youngest Chief Minister was well on Mufti Sayeed’s track of velvet fist rather than Farooq Abdullah’s iron gloves.
Watching Omar forward PDP’s healing touch policy to the extent of issuing Passports to the most persecuted sections of the separatists and militants and, in fact, beginning his work after expansion of his Cabinet with recruiting over 300 of the Jamaat-e-Islami activists as teachers, Geelani began to assert afresh.
Geelani, indeed, stands out in the crowd of Kashmiri politicians in professing the art of building his strength over the weaknesses of the Indian democratic system. In certain areas, he has indisputably outclassed even the towering Sheikh Abdullah. Contrary to Abdullah, Geelani’s base of influence was for decades limited to just a section of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Even when Sheikh was in jail, Geelani was among the five Jamaat-e-Islami candidates whose victory was dubiously facilitated by Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Congress party in the fraudulently conducted Assembly elections of 1972. It happened years before Bhindranwale was picked up for a role in the SGPC elections in Punjab. By the time a secessionist guerrilla movement erupted in Kashmir in 1989 and the Jamaat firebrand resigned as a MUF MLA, he had represented his constituency of Sopore for three terms and contested more elections than any of the state’s Chief Ministers and their family members.
Geelani’s influence in the separatist camp was penuriously limited till 2002, notwithstanding his acting as Hurriyat’s chairman for a term. Then a Jamaat ideologue, he was harshly pushed out of a condolence meeting over the assassination of People Conference founder Abdul Gani Lone. Many in the PC suspected him of being friendly with Lone’s assassins. They had no hesitation in asserting publicly.
When Mufti Sayeed engineered Hurriyat’s first split in 2003 after 10 years of its existence by inducting Lone’s confidante and PC’s proxy MLA from Handwara, Mohiuddin Sofi, as a Minister, none of the constituents sided with Geelani. Diving in controversy after controversy, Geelani was expelled even from the Jamaat he had served for over 40 years. He was reprimanded by then Pakistani President, Gen Musharraf, for his lack of reconciliation. Then came his real defining moments. He not only launched his own, Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, but also projected an alliance of nondescript separatist groups as the “real” Hurriyat. This is the alliance that is calling the shots in Kashmir today and has, for the first time, brought New Delhi to its knees. Much of its credit unmistakably goes to Mufti, followed by Omar.
Omar fumbled and faltered from day one in office
New Delhi’s policy of having no Kashmir policy proved to be disastrous in the current turbulence. Even as Congress became NC’s coalition partner both at the Central as well as the state level, Kashmir continued to be handled by intelligence and security agencies. Perhaps this would not have been the position with men like Rajesh Pilot in Sonia Gandhi’s Congress and UPA. Left to bureaucracy and the intelligence and security agencies, Kashmir was turned into a political laboratory. In the last several years, Farooq Abdullah’s politics of jingoism—that was perceived to be turning dangerous with NC’s insistence on autonomy—was replaced by Mufi Sayeed’s politics of appeasement.
Enjoying a riding on the tiger for several years, New Delhi found itself in a whirlpool in 2008 when it realized that the Valley’s radical sections were the real beneficiaries of Mufti’s healing touch policy. That they had regrouped and expanded their base substantially became clear when Geelani emerged as the hero of Amarnath land row turmoil and Mufti’s PDP became completely irrelevant. Assembly elections turned the tables soon and an anti-incumbency factor favoured Dr Abdullah’s party. All but one of Mufti’s Cabinet Ministers were defeated by the NC candidates.
Hate-India sentiment was publicly promoted by Mufti and his party to the extent that nobody questioned one of Mufti’s senior Cabinet Ministers as to how Lashkar-e-Toiba militants had stayed at his residence for several weeks before setting out for Ahmedabad in Gujarat to launch a Fidayeen attack on Akshardhaam temple. The Minister resigned when the story appeared in media but Mufti advised him not to quit on “such small matters”.
One of the PDP Ministers lately revealed in a television interview that New Delhi had sent a lot of money to J&K, which Mufti filled in envelops and sent it to the families of the militants dying in encounters with the Special Operations Group and the Indian
security forces. None of the civilian killings, suspected to be done by militants, was ever condemned by then Chief Minister or any of his Ministerial colleagues.
Dangers of leaving the hardline politics uncontested politically became evident in the worst form in the middle of current year when New Delhi failed to get a single politician, with the exception of J&K PCC President, Saif-ud-din Soz, to say a word in entire J&K state against the separatist hardliners grabbing entire space in the Valley. Everybody seemed to be talking of the need to reach out to 500-odd stone pelters and nobody even consoled hundreds of thousands of the shopkeepers, a substantial chunk of the population associated with tourism and equal number of students losing their months due to continued shutdown and clashes.
Congress leader and Minister of Medical Education, R S Chib, visited SKIMS but not to call on the people injured in different incidents of violence. He enquired about a single patient—Syed Ali Shah Geelani—and directed Director of the hospital to provide best possible treatment to the separatist leader. On occasion of the assassination anniversary of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s father in May, another Congress leader and Minister of Health, Sham Lal Sharma, organized a blood donation camp at SKIMS and marked attendance of all of his senior and junior officials at the separatist show.
Without bearing in mind that NC could never take PDP’s position in the Valley’s separatist camp, Omar Abdullah picked up the threads of his job where these had been left by Mufti in November 2005. Even after becoming Chief Minister, he did little to enquire about the condition of the families of nearly 3,000 NC workers and leaders killed by militants for their association with Sheikh Abdullah’s party they held responsible for J&K’s accession to India.
During the first test of his confidence, Omar blindly toed the “popular” line in Shopian in June-September 2009. He and his Ministers attempted to outsmart everybody from PDP to Hurriyat in presenting themselves as “anti-Police”. On one fine morning, Government’s Advocate General, senior separatist advocates and a specially engaged Supreme Court lawyer were seen drafting charges and evidences against four Police officials on a shared table. Even as the CBI investigation later came as an embarrassment for the government, the NC politicians’ public trial of the accused officials demoralized middle and lower rungs of J&K Police.
While demonstrating lack of self confidence, Chief Minister also seemed to be living under serious inferiority complexes. Finding himself at the receiving end of his detractors’ canard, Omar began presenting himself as a Kashmiri Muslim, no inferior to Mufti and Mehbooba. He was shown on official media occasionally performing his prayers in the lead row at Hazratbal. Many here believe that the Khatam-e-Sharief at his residence has become a bolder feature than Cabinet meetings. Analysts insist that religious affiliation of some members of his family has grown as a complex for the young Chief Minister.