First Person | Baptism by Fire

Lessons from the Kashmiri streets 

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

After a few months of bandhs, protests and violence, just when the situation seemed to be settling down a bit in Kashmir and one expected that the newly- elected government of Omar Abdullah would get around to doing some work, the People’s Democratic Party once again showed that if it can help it, governance would remain a pipedream for Abdullah. On the first day of the budget session of the state Assembly on July 27, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti along with other members of her party created a ruckus in the Assembly. They stormed to the well of the house. Mufti tried to snatch the microphone from the Speaker who was urging them to return to their seats. Mufti and her colleagues raised slogans that presenting the perpetrators of the Shopian rape and murder in the House was more important than anything else. Eventually, they had to be physically escorted out of the House.

Considering that Abdullah’s government has only been fire-fighting ever since it came to power on the promise of good governance, the days ahead are very crucial, especially if he has to start moving the political process towards resolution. In a few months people will be talking about one year of Abdullah government, which would not have much to show for itself. It is true that he has a six year mandate to prove himself, but six years is also a long time for a person to get discredited.

When the people came out in huge numbers to vote for change in the state last year and catapulted Abdullah to the chief minister’s seat, the message for the rabble-rousers was clear: People were done with chronic loss of income and petty politicking. They wanted a semblance of normalcy, so that they could carry on with their work and their children could attend school regularly. They wanted calm and they wanted basic facilities that are expected of any government to provide the people with. This was the dream which Abdullah successfully sold to the people. It will take very little for this dream to sour. In the end they will not remember Shopian or the Baramullah agitations, which were clearly premeditated. They will judge him on how much he has been able to deliver on his promise, and that goes beyond bijli, sadak and paani.

Abdullah’s glass of woes is very tall. Apart from the political sensitivities of the state, Kashmir also has limited revenue and employment options. Tourism and its dependent industry handicrafts are among the biggest employers. Last year, because of the Amarnath land fracas (incidentally, yet another PDP creation), half the tourist season (which runs from spring to autumn) was lost. As the crisis deepened, and the Separatist jumped in the fray, the other industry, horticulture, also suffered. Among the intangible losses was the rupturing of ties between Jammu and Kashmir and between Hindus and Muslims.

Following that has been the summer of pain this year, when once again the tourist season has suffered badly. It is all very well to discount protests by the people as inconsequential, because the numbers on the streets are not big, but the fact is that one photograph of arson is enough to keep tourists away. They are not spending money to come to J&K if they are not assured that they will get their money’s worth. And if the tourists don’t come, the Kashmiris suffer.

Luckily for Abdullah, on the balance sheet, he has a lot of credit. No other politician in India has caught the fancy of so many people in a long time as he has. He comes across as earnest, well-meaning, honest and imaginative. It helps that he is articulate and good-looking too. In Kashmir, he is almost royalty, the grandson of the Lion of Kashmir. For the rest of the country, he is what an ideal politician should be in India, that is, secular to the core. His Hindu wife, Payal, who has been asked neither to change her name nor religion for public consumption, is testimony to the fact that Omar Abdullah does not use religion as his calling card. Or for that matter does not lead a double life, which is not something you can say for most politicians in India.

However, as a chief minister, he needs more than these qualities. He needs the art of politicking as well. This is what Union home minister P. Chidambaram implied when he said that Abdullah needed to find a political solution to the public display of anger on the streets, along with the administrative and judicial one. Because he not only faces a cunning and desperate opposition in the state, he also has to live with an opportunistic and immature local media. Treading the high ground and not talking to them is not a solution. Probably, cultivating a section among them is.

Governments get both good and bad press. The sensible ones take the former lightly and engage with the latter. Perhaps, he also needs to informally engage with those Separatist elements which are less inimical to his government. Given that he has yet not turned reactive, there is still hope that he would be able to tame the PDP.


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