While Shopian murders may have severely tested the credibility of his government, Chief Minister Omer Abdullah’s own political image has emerged by and large unscathed at the end of his maiden year in power in the state. The chief minister continues to retain his fresh-faced feel despite the intense political turmoil of the year and the wear and tear of the daily governance.
This is in sharp contrast to the former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad who lost both face as well as the throne in the 2008 Amarnath land row. Omer survived not only the Summerful unrest over Shopian but also a personal sex allegation from People’s Democratic Party. This has led some people to call him our first Teflon politician whose image doesn’t get stuck upon by the swirling dirt around him. But for others, it is some intangible quality that sets him apart and somehow persuades people to absolve him of the wrongs emanating from the system headed by him.
In case of Shopian, despite his initial slip, the chief minister somehow managed to salvage his reputation from the wholesale demolition of the credibility of his administration. Omar subsequently made the right noises besides determined efforts in his moves to appear to be on the side of people. This helped him create a credible impression of a subtle distinction between his person and his government.
This is why his prompt press conference over Shopian, in retrospect, to have been an earnest effort to appear to be serious about the investigation. How many times have we seen a CM calling a press conference after a crime which initially, I mean initially, seemed to have nothing extra-ordinary about it.
Looking back at the one year of this government, the picture that emerges, however, defies any easy judgement. What instead is clear is that National Conference under Omer is looking to change and adapt. Albeit, the party isn’t clear on how. Even though fears linger, Omer has so far done nothing that could evoke the memories of his father’s rough-neck administration from 1996 through 2002. But at the same time, the chief minister has yet to impart his government a new political identity. So far his approach has been shy and furtive, and more of an open-ended, day to day nature rather than informed by a political narrative – or even some kind of a policy undertone – associated with political parties, that too of the pedigree of National Conference. On the contrary, his general focus through the year has been a better governance for the state.
Wresting government back after being spectacularly dislodged from power in a vote in 2002 – the first time the party lost an election in past 60 years – the NC has yet to outline a development plan or articulate a robust political agenda. The approach so far has generally been to respond to the developing situation. And respond to it in a gubernatorial, or worse in a bureaucratic fashion. Somehow the feel of a politician as the people’s aspirational and, of course, inspirational representative of the people is missing. Omar who made the famous parliament speech is missing.
True, a governance centric agenda cannot be faulted but a governance pursued for its own sake renders the entire enterprise of government sterile and by and by leads to a disconnect with the people. And when it is the government of National Conference, that is culpable of it, the conspicuity of it is difficult to ignore. For Omar has a political legacy that not only lends him a certain aura but also creates a huge expectation. But here he has appeared like operating in a vacuum.
National Conference needs to stand up and get down to the issues that matter and weigh with the people and build its politics around them.
But NC seems to have stopped doing this. Not now. In fact, long long back. One can argue with some confidence that NC has ceased to be a part of the mass politics in the state since the 1975 Indira-Sheikh accord. The accord, in a sense, dumbed down the party and fundamentally altered its priorities. From a party of masses, the NC changed into a party of power.
But now enjoying yet another stint in the government – albeit in alliance with Congress – NC has a job on hand. And Omer has the onerous responsibility to see it through. On the rebound from two decades of turbulence, Valley is unable to conceive a vision of a stable political future. As in the past 60 years, a deep sense of political uncertainty remains entrenched in public consciousness. And a party that most adequately addresses this uncertainty – that is, under the given political arrangement – will get to have a say in the destiny of the state. Because, Kashmir despite several constants about its situation is a changed place. Fading out of the gun from the scene has unleashed a new raw street energy across the Valley. Mob fury remains on hair trigger. And like sorcerer’s apprentice, once mobilized the mobs have been difficult to control.
This situation needs not only a better administrator but also a politician with a nuanced approach to the affairs of the state. With hopefully more than five years of rule still left for this government, it is time that Omar the politician shows up. Along with rejuvenation and of course, revitalization of its internal working, NC and of course the state also needs a new leader.
And finally, Omer would do well not to forget the deaths in Shopian. For, despite CBI ruling out rape and murder, the incident can easily come back to haunt his government. The deaths in public consciousness have long transcended their narrow criminal definition and come under an overarching political context of the valley. They have suddenly awakened a collective memory of the excesses that this place has been subjected to over the excruciating course of the past twenty years. And without the chief minister doing something really extra-ordinary – and credibly too – to satisfy the growing public concern, the crime is not only going to remain a rallying cry for the street but a reference point for the functioning of his government.