& K Chief Minister
Rahul Gandhi may have made the word ‘young’ fashionable again in
Indian politics but none of his generation has had to wear a crown
of thorns like Omar Abdullah does. At 39, Abdullah is running the
affairs of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s most sensitive state, as the
youngest chief minister in the country. The crown had for the first
few months been sitting easy on his head. The last eight
weeks,however, have been a test. On May 30, two women were allegedly
raped and murdered by security forces, an incident that triggered
widespread protests. At a news conference a few days later, Omar ran
into a firestorm by stating that initial police reports suggested
the two women had died by drowning. The going has been tough since
then for the Abdullah scion. Every move he makes is under public
scrutiny. In an exclusive interview with Muzaffar Raina of The
Telegraph, Omar acknowledges the period has been difficult and that
his statement in the Shopian case damaged his personal credibility.
The Telegraph: How is the youngest chief minister coping with the
post-honeymoon pressures of politics?
Omar: I wasn’t expecting as long a honeymoon as I got. I think it is
important that a vibrant media keeps the government on its toes, so
long as what is written or what is said is objective and is based on
facts. I have no complaints with the media. The media does an
important job in any democracy and particularly in a state like
Jammu and Kashmir where so much can go wrong. But it is also
important that people working in the media set aside their personnel
bias and report a story objectively. That is all one expects. But
are they free of bias? Unfortunately, not.
TT: Has life become lonely at the top for you?
Omar: To be honest with you, yes. There are times when one feels
lonely in as much as you want to vent your feelings, express a sense
of anguish, a sense of frustration, a sense of anger. Post-Shopian,
I saw that the press conference (of June 3) had gone against me.
There was so much in-built anger at myself that I wanted to take
TT: Do you think your plain speaking has been your biggest weakness?
Omar: I have not done much plain speaking, but yes, possibly my
reluctance not to answer questions posed to me has been something I
have to undo. Now (I am) going to be lot more circumspect about the
questions that I take and the answers that I give. Clearly there is
an ability to twist an answer to suit a predetermined mindset, which
TT: Where did it go wrong with Shopian?
Omar: It is important to see the whole thing in sequence. I came to
the press conference not to agree with what the police were saying.
I didn’t come there to suggest that no crime has taken place. I came
there to accept that we are dissatisfied with the initial findings
and an in-depth inquiry is required, independent of the government
and the best way to do that was through a judicial inquiry. The
mistake I made was when I was asked what the initial findings were.
And I shared those.
TT: Do you think that it undid a lot of the goodwill you had?
Omar: Well, it certainly damaged my own personal credibility and to
an extent the credibility of the government as well. As I said, the
intention was not wrong, my intention was to answer a question that
had been posed to me. Unfortunately, certain friends of mine decided
that I was agreeing with the police by expressing that view. In
hindsight, it was a mistake and I should have been more careful and
as I said I shall be very choosy in the questions that I take and
the answers that I give.
TT: No other young generation leader has been thrown into the deep
end at such a short time as you. Do you regret taking the plunge as
Omar: Not at all. I don’t have a moment of regret. There have been
days when things got a little rough, when I get a little
short-tempered with people around me, but those days have been few
and far between. I have a great belief that a lot of what is
happening is orchestrated to distract this government, to derail it,
make it look so inward-looking that we are not able to fulfil the
commitments we made to people. Therefore I have been very careful
that in spite of all the provocation, we have tried to maintain as
much as possible a business-as-usual approach.
TT: At any point of time have you thought of quitting the job?
Omar: No, I have only just started.
TT: At possible moments of despair, do you wish to switch sides with
your father who has a more relaxed job (as Union minister of the
relatively low-profile department of new and renewable energy)?
Omar: My father has earned the relaxation that he has. I have
commitments with my party, my coalition partners and more than that,
with the state of Jammu and Kashmir. I have never been a person to
run away from difficulties. I didn’t run away when we lost the
elections in 2002, though I took full responsibility for that
defeat. I worked to keep the party alive, toured extensively, it is
not in my nature to run away.
TT: How have these six months been different from the rest of your
life and has it affected your personal life?
Omar: There are no comparisons. In terms of workload, pressure,
learning, both from other people’s experiences as from my own, there
is no comparison, the responsibility that comes with the job of
chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. I think in the entire context
of India’s polity this is perhaps a unique opportunity. To that
extent it has affected my personal life but it is not for me to
complain. I wasn’t forced in this position. I am here of my own
TT: Why has the situation come to this point?
Omar: There are multiple reasons for that, partly it is the
individual events that have taken place, partly individual events
have been orchestrated. Shopian was an event that I think required
better handling on part of the government. There are lessons to be
learnt but there have been incidents after that where I believe we
have been very swift in reacting and we avoided what could otherwise
have been a very messy situation.
TT: Is it the separatists or any mainstream party that is giving you
more trouble? Who is orchestrating the incidents?
Omar: Strangely enough, there is a convergence of interest among the
principal opposition party (PDP) and some separatist elements. There
are clear indicators that are available with us about how these
forces have converged. If I am not mistaken, the Union home minister
has revealed that a lot of trouble was fomented by parties that have
not accepted their defeat in the elections. Convergence means they
have joined hands, they have a common interest in keeping the pot
boiling, there is a politics of blood that is being played, the
moment there is trouble they want to add to this trouble, rather
than reducing it.
TT: Has the controversy weakened your position in the government?
Omar: The government continues to move forward. Yes, it has been a
difficult period that I personally and the state have gone through.
If you look at it in its totality, we have been the victim of some
highly exaggerated reporting. There have been pockets of trouble in
the Valley but to suggest that the whole Valley is up in flames is