Democracy’s Kings

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Everybody in J&K politics aspires to be the Chief Minister. It is not only because it is the ultimate what the politics can offer for an activist in a fiercely contested ‘special’ state but also the immense authority and the privileges that the coveted position enjoys, reports R S Gull

Omar Abdullah during in action. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

Omar Abdullah during in action. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

Being Chief Minister of J&K is considered to be the sexiest political slot in India. It pains if you lose it and it hurts when you get it. Within three months after NC lost power in 2002, Omar Abdullah who had lost from Ganderbal reported a weight loss of 10 kilograms. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the always-smiling politician, then with a political career spanning over 26 years, reported losing eight kilograms of weight in the first five months after taking over from Mufti in November 2005!

That is perhaps why becoming the chief executive of J&K is somewhere in the subconscious of every political being in the state. Though the democracy here follows the family tree, it still fetches chances to ‘loyalists’. Had not history been prone to accidents, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, G M Sadiq, Mir Qasim and more recently Ghulam Mohammad Shah would never have ruled J&K. Being a state that, as P Chidambaram once said, “acceded to India in special circumstances”, it sometimes throws up chances where a ruler is picked up from the crowd as was the case with Shams-ud-Din Kath after the Holy Relic agitation.

Regardless of what has happened to the institution of Chief Minister over the decades, the position is literally no less than a king. You order and it happens. Chief Minister of J&K may have lot of tension but his days in offices are no less than ultimate luxury. Their salary and allowances are not huge, compared to the ordinary lawmaker but they travel in best cars that human mind can make, fly in exclusive aircrafts and live in palatial palace-like mansions – all at the cost of taxpayer.

Fair View Guest House.

Fair View Guest House.

Take for instance their security. Not many people know that J&K’s three families are protected by 650-member Special Security Group (SSG), a special police unit mandated by law to protect Chief Minister, his predecessors and their families.

Raised in 2000, the SSG was basically set up as part of the Chief Minister’s security cover. Two years later in 2002 when Dr Abdullah lost throne to Mufti, the governor had to issue an SRO to accommodate the security concerns of Dr Abdullah and his family. The law was later amended to extend the cover to the incumbent and former chief ministers and their immediate families.

Right now, it covers the families of Abdullahs (Dr Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah), Muftis (Mufti Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti), besides Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and his family especially when they are in J&K.

SSG comprises members drawn from different sections of the police. Currently led by a DIG rank officer (called Director), SSG maintains its own control room, communication network, a fleet of more than 100 vehicles, radio jammers, special arms and sophisticated equipment, a series of mine-detecting, exploding and protecting gadgetry that includes life saving bullet proof blankets and jackets. It operates from three stations – one each at Jammu, Srinagar and Delhi.

“Getting into SSG does not mean rubbing shoulders with the VVIPs only,” a former inspector with the SSG said. “Sometimes there is action as well. On February 27, 2004 Mufti Sayeed was visiting Beerwa as Chief Minister and he was attacked. A girl was killed as half a dozen persons including some paramilitary men were injured and we had to use bullet-proof blankets to ensure his safety.”

Omar Abdullah in Chopper.

Omar Abdullah in Chopper.

Unlike ministers who fly in and out of the twin capitals of the state almost on weekly and not daily basis, the Chief Minister flies by chopper for short distances and uses the small aircraft for longer distances. This is not peculiar to J&K alone as all the states have flying machines now.

J&K set up civil aviation department in 1996 which spent more than Rs 150 crore on creating required infrastructure. Sitting on the ruins of three choppers since 1994, wreckage of some of which still lies unclaimed over inaccessible peaks and insurance unclaimed partially, the department is the proud owner of an aircraft King Air-350 and two choppers including a Bell-407 and Augusta-109E.

The last two major purchases in CAD took place during Ghulam Nabi Azad era. In 2007, Azad acquired the Italian sensation Agusta-109 Power for Rs 20.20 crore. The twin-engine chopper already inducted by at least a dozen militaries of the world including US coast guards is considered best suiting rugged topography and security situation. Early 2008, CAD replaced its Beach-Craft A350 availing the manufacturers exchange offer. It cost Rs 26.86 crore minus US $ 16,50,000 (over seven crore rupees) for the old aircraft. The old and the new aircrafts are same but the newer one suits the security concerns around the world that crept to the top of the agenda after 9/11. It has a standardized belly mounted radome for surveillance radars, provisions for fixed or retractable forward infrared radars, observation windows besides increased fuel provisions. It mission endurance is up by seven hours compared to the earlier one.

By an average, these flying machines cost CAD around Rs 5 crore a year including fuel and maintenance. Given the duration of flying they record, state government costs quite less. Consider this statistics: In 1095 days of 2010, 2011 and 2012, the state aircraft was in air for 693 days. In fact 321 sorties were reported in 365 days of 2010 alone. The two choppers reported 2770 sorties in the same period which means more than once a day. Invariably Chief Minister was on board in more than half of these sorties.

Flying machines are part of the facilities for the Chief Minister and if any official or a minister has to use it, it requires a go-ahead from the Chief Minister. Only Chief Minister has the right to take a private person in the aircraft or a chopper.

Even when Chief Minister drives around, it is not ordinary. It is a huge cavalcade that moves around which has lot of officers, an ambulance, a jammer and, more recently, an emergency vehicle carrying fire fighting system (Omar’s car once caught fire in Jammu) along with. It is a royal cavalcade. The ambulance has doctor and a few paramedics in it. The number of the cars in the cavalcade sometimes crosses 20. Even the Deputy Chief Minister was moving in 25 car cavalcades. Omar Abdullah has risen the bar as he moved in a very costly Range Rover but reports suggest all the fancy cars are his personal property and there was no source available that would suggest that these cars are government property.

Ghulam Nabi Azad as CM of JK.

Ghulam Nabi Azad as CM of JK.

But what makes the real big difference is how the Chief Ministers live. In J&K every former Chief Minister enjoys certain amenities which include a house, an assistant and other allowances. Most of the Chief Ministers after demitting office continues to retain their houses.

For last many decades, Srinagar had only one address for the Chief Minister – at Gupkar where Dr Farooq Abdullah lived. In 2002 when NC did not attempt to form government because nobody from the family could win, the requirement of an official residence was felt. Eventually Mufti Sayeed decided to live closer to the city and a Guest House on M A Road. Closer to the Banquet Hall, and accessible to all, it was found an ideal place for meetings. It was repaired at an investment of Rs 6 crore.

Given the security situation, officials created a strong room where the VVIP could take refuge in wake of an attack. It was fenced from all sides. When Mufti passed throne to Ghulam Nabi Azad soon after the October 2005 earthquake, Mufti shifted to Fairview Guest House on the Zabarwan Hills and sent Muzaffar Hussain Beig, the Deputy Chief Minister to get housed in this Guest House. It was, however, never attacked. The strong room that was built was eventually used to house pets.

Azad’s takeover triggered demand of another house. Initially he operated from his Hyderpora residence and later he shifted to the official residence of Chairman J&K Bank, located outside Zeaathyar Temple on the Zabarwan Hills. The then Chairman Dr Haseeb Drabu was allotted M-6 on the Gupkar. Though the J&K Bank chairman has already received marching orders from this house, Azad continues to stay in the J&K bank property.

At the same time, however, Azad gave a go-ahead to the repairs of the massive palace that Hari Singh had built on the insistence of his court singer. Located at the fascinated location and serving as counter-insurgency intelligence centre at the peak of militancy, the Hari Niwas Palace was redone with an investment that exceeded Rs 15 crore. Spread over more than 70 kanals of land, the property has three presidential suites, a VVIP guesthouse and four master bedrooms, and 62 rooms besides an office for the chief minister’s secretariat.

Even though Azad was personally involved with its landscaping, he shared his fate with that of Maharja. The palace proved spooky for him.

Hari Singh built this palace but never used it. Historian Yousuf Taing has said that when Mr A (as Hari Singh was nicknamed after a sex racket in London) returned from Europe, he was impressed by Gothic architecture and built it in 1925-26. He never lived in it and instead constructed Tara Niwas in the neighbourhood where he was living when tribal raids took place. In fact Malika Pokhraj, his celebrated court singer in her heydays has claimed to have lived in the palace for much more time than the Maharaja. Unable to take a final decision, Azad lost his government in 2008 and stayed with the J&K bank property. In addition, he has one house occupied in Jammu and another in Delhi. Mufti also has a Jammu residence but not a Delhi house.

Once in Delhi all Chief Ministers operate from a special block in the Kashmir House at Prithvi Raj which is a luxury suit.

Omar in his Gupkar residence.

Omar in his Gupkar residence.

In 2008 situation changed totally when Omar handshake Rahul and became the Chief Minister. To have his official residence, the government demolished many official houses around it and created a massively impressive mansion. It costs much more than what is officially said: Rs 3.40 crore.

The mansion having two bedrooms, a dining hall, kitchen, a mini-theatre and underground recreational room, a small gym and sauna was meticulously built under the watchful eyes of Payal Singh, Omar’s separated wife. The works for specific jobs came from across India along with the material and were housed in circuit house.

These amenities come with lot of powers. Given the security situation, the chief minister has a huge secret fund exceeding Rs 10 crore a year. It requires no audit and is completely secret. But there are thousands of facilities that are discretionary.

Think, if we have a different face as Chief Minister this time, J&K will have to have a new mansion.

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About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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