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INTERVIEW
‘Our Political Response to Situations is Much Better Now than it was Last Year’
Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah
Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah wears a crown of thorns. Fortunately for him, he wears it lightly; else the price that power has been extracting off him would have been much greater. Denied a mandatory honeymoon period by the local Kashmiri media and the main opposition party, the PDP, when he took over as the chief minister in January 2009, Abdullah has lurched from crisis to crisis in the last two years, most of them not of his own making.

Reviled as an outsider who does not understand Kashmiriyat, criticised as an immature leader who is susceptible to ill-advice by motivated people and mocked as a tweeting chief minister who has more time for his iPhone than the people of the state, Abdullah has shown remarkable resilience, absorbing criticism, admitting mistakes and thinking ahead. In January 2010, when FORCE met him at his residence in Jammu, he refused to give an annual report card for his work, saying that he has a six-year mandate and people should judge him after that. Since then plenty of stones have been thrown all over the Valley and the blood of over 100 youngsters have stained the streets. But Abdullah has retained his equanimity and despite pressure has not given into populism.

In the spring of 2011, FORCE met him again in his tastefully appointed living room in Srinagar. Nattily dressed in a dark suit and a blue woven tie, Abdullah appeared a bit more circumspect, yet candid about his mistakes. A lot had changed in a year; however, what hadn’t changed was his refusal to succumb to populist politics. And that perhaps adds to the fuel of his detractors’ fire who continue to accuse him of not doing anything and being disconnected with the people.

However, this distance between populism and long-term thinking is what distinguishes a politician from a statesman. Abdullah is struggling to bridge this gap. What he needs is courage to take decisions which will have a long-term impact on the people of his state. He need not be the best politician that J&K has ever seen; he can still be a good leader who saw the future and rekindled hope.
In the backdrop of the last three summers, how do you assess the coming summer, especially after the assassination of president of J&K faction of Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees Maulana Shaukat Ahmed Shah and the fissures that this has created with the Hurriyat leadership?

The Separatists camp in Kashmir has never been united. It is the events which force them to take a common stand from time to time, but otherwise there are clear and persistent differences among them. Pakistan has tried many times to bring them on a common platform but has singularly failed in doing so. The differences spring from the questions of leadership, ideology and poaching on each others’ home turf. This has been an old phenomenon and will continue like this. Maulana Shaukat’s killing is tragic. He was one of the saner and courageous voices among even the moderates. The moderates in Kashmir are those who usually do not have the guts to go against the tide and prefer going with the flow. Maulana Shaukat frequently took positions based on what he believed even when they went against the popular sentiment, particularly his speaking against stone-pelting when it was at its peak. He called it unIslamic and not many liked that. Despite all this, I don’t see his killing having any major impact on the situation in the Valley.

As far as assessment for the summer is concerned, so far so good. But then nobody had predicted this time last year what eventually happened. I don’t think any of us should claim to have a crystal ball. All we should do is make efforts to ensure that similar events do not happen again.

What efforts can these be which can prevent eruption of protests in the Valley this year?

The effort is on multiple fronts. The first and the most important, of course is to gear up the security forces to deal with law and order disturbances. Twenty years of a mindset of dealing with terrorism is difficult to convert in 20 days. We were found seriously wanting on that front last year.

Unfortunately, the lessons of 2008 were not heeded and it was thought to be a one-off thing. In 2009, though we had some trouble it was not all that significant. 2010 was a very bad year but there are lessons learnt in terms of our technique, our equipment and how we handle situations as they develop. Our political response to situations is much better now than it was last year. We are more aware of the fact that a smallest incident can become the biggest problem if not handled immediately. There has been a general improvement in our ability to handle a situation. Statistics bear this out. In the first quarter of last year, we had six deaths at the hands of the security forces when dealing with law and order situations, this year the number is zero. This shows how we are able to tactfully and tactically deal with the situation.

Do you get a sense that the people in the Valley are getting disappointed with you? What are you doing to stem this disappointment?

The expectations were so high when I became the chief minister that an element of disappointment is but natural. Take the example of Barack Obama who had 80 per cent approval ratings when he became the President. People thought that one would pull the stars off the sky and put them in their laps, which cannot happen. One does what one can do. But let us not forget that I have a six-year term. People will make up their minds when the term expires. If you see the whole picture you will see some of the things that we have been able to do in the area of governance, transparency and now the Panchayat elections. All these will make significant difference.

When you take stock of the two years that you have been in power, what has been achieved?

I take stock of every month. In terms of governance, we have been able to take some landmark initiatives through the assembly, whether it is accountability or delivery of government services by setting deadlines. What we have not done is a massive programme of expansion, instead we have focussed on a programme of consolidation, which is why, for instance, the quality of rural health care has improved. It is not optimum, but it has improved. We have focussed on rural connectivity; we have built more roads in the rural areas in the 14 months than were built in 14 years. We commissioned over a 100 bridges in last year alone. And as I said, if the Panchayat elections conclude more or less peacefully, it will be a major initiative towards grassroots governance.

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