Kashmir needs a stronger CM
M J Akbar
There are few juicy scandals in our public life, not because politicians are abstemious but because the public does not necessarily equate sex with scandal. Curiously politicians, the big beneficiaries, still think a prurient accusation is worth the effort. When you are a good-looking chap like Omar Abdullah, such hazards probably come with the territory.
So, what explains Omar's hasty resignation? When you wade into the rocky waters of Kashmir, you are bound to injure a toe occasionally on underwater reef. There was an unwarranted primness in Omar's haste. His father Farooq, who has been known to race a motorcycle or two around the Dal Lake in his younger days, would have found a nuanced means to reassure the people and laugh at the opposition. But in order to laugh you must know how to laugh and, more important, when to laugh.
Omar offered to resign because he could not work, he said, till proved innocent. Why not work harder till proved innocent? One assumes he is innocent. Voters elected him to work, not to go into a sulk when the jeering began in the legislature.
Indians, by temperament, are not interested in what politicians do in the private. The real scandal, surely, is what politicians do in the open. Corruption is no longer a shady business. It is all eyes-wideopen, media-couldn't-care-less deals. It works both ways: being a saint does not win you an election. Nor can anyone get very far by casting stones at bedroom windows.
Jawaharlal Nehru is the most honoured name after Mahatma Gandhi in our recent history. He was slandered with abandon even in the more discreet culture of his lifetime. His trusted private secretary, M O Mathai, waited for him to die before placing a few salacious suggestions into the public domain. This did not disturb Nehru's composure when alive, and did not dent his reputation after death. Gandhi did not need the investigatory skills of any hack to expose his private life. He did it himself, with breathtaking honesty and exemplary courage in the astonishing confessional that is his autobiography. The book was published 18 years before freedom, not as a post-retirement benefit fund: it is, by the way, much more than a route-map to celibacy or an unabashed defiance of temptation. The lords of the British empire who considered him, correctly, an existentialist threat, could do nothing with the material Gandhi placed at their command. Why?
Indians love gossip as much as anyone else, but when it comes to judgment, they become gossip-neutral. They might expect a faultless character from gods; they are far more understanding of human beings. Indian common sense is both sensible and common. Politicians, who would not have passed the first of a puritan scrutiny, have reached the highest reaches of public office; puritans have seen their ambitions aborted because they failed a political scrutiny.
What Kashmiris expect is not excessive rectitude from Omar Abdullah, but a far better daily existence for themselves. This adds up to life security, infrastructure and the zealous protection of self-respect. Omar's youth, sincerity and transparent lack of cynicism have raised hopes, which is dangerous since great expectations can also cause a great crash. A caveat is probably necessary at this point. Cynicism is the swine flu of politics. One sharp sneeze and it may hit young Omar any time.
Did Omar lose his nerve? Steel nerves are overrated in a democracy. Silver nerves work better, for they are flexible. He has been in office only since January and you can detect signs of uncertainty in his grasp of power. In public life, an administration transfers a leader's confusion instantly to the people. Experts in rousing rabble can checkmate any government unsure of the needed levels of response. There is no algebra that can be consulted, no theory that can be practiced. Experience, with its attendant baggage of precedent, helps, but only up to a point. It is fashionable among the younger lot to display the self-importance implicit in the adage made famous by US president Harry Truman: "The buck stops here." Let me suggest a wiser option. If you flip too often, you end up as a flop.
The politics of Kashmir is sharply contextual. Pakistan analyses each step and misstep. The generational change represented by Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who could be the next chief minister, begs a collateral question. Are they going to lead their generation towards the emotional and psychological integration with secular, democratic and increasingly prosperous India, or will they preside over a drift to nowhere land? There is a great deal riding on their abilities, language and convictions. This is their tryst with an inherited destiny; they cannot afford to wilt before the first hurdle of democratic politicking. Resignation in the hope of martyrdom is for saints. Martyrs find their moment in death. Kashmir needs chief ministers who can offer life.
Appeared in Times of India - July 02, 2009