Byline by M J Akbar: Sheikh of Options
You know a marriage has gone sour when one of the couple begins winking at the neighbour. The political wedlock between Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah was the celebrity event of our times, a signature moment that harmonised the hopes of a new century with the promise of a generation free not only from the fuddy-duddy mindset of a Nehru-Sheikh ancestry, but also the overenthusiastic mistakes of the daddy partnership between Farooq Abdullah and Rajiv Gandhi.
It also aimed at being a sparky New India coalition that came into its own when Omar Abdullah used the 2008 debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal to offer a soliloquy on why he was an Indian first, with everything else in the queue of identities coming only after this primary assertion. This speech was the ideological bedrock of Delhi’s trust, and when Omar was sent to Srinagar in 2009, it was as if Rahul Gandhi was sending not just another Chief Minister but a virtual national anthem.
When the history of ironies is written it will be a thick book. Neither Omar nor Rahul knew in the glorious summer of 2009 what anyone with even marginal memory could have told them: the path of good intentions is not only strewn with stones but has innumerable by-lanes that wind their way to Islamabad. The world has changed since the 1989-1993 intifada, which is why the gun has given way to the slingshot, but the purpose is the same, provocation, and a message to the world that while there might be a government in Srinagar it is not in power in Kashmir.
The syndrome suffered from additional confusion, born out of the simulated halo dangling behind the Rahul-Omar partnership. These young men were in politics, obviously, but they were not quite the kind of grubby politician who had one hand in the till and the other dabbling in compromise. The phenomenon is not particularly original. The favourite weapon of every generation is a broom with which to sweep the past away. But the past is much more than a collection of mistakes. It is also a repository of lessons. However, Delhi was gulled by the “non-political” image it had generated out of a PR machine. It could not believe that Omar would descend from high ground towards the sub-text of Kashmiri nationalism.
Omar Abdullah was “above” politics as long as it suited him to waft on that lofty level. A politician does what is necessary to stay in power. Omar needed Congress to become CM; he had neither a majority on his own, nor even the boost of single-largest party in the Assembly. He succeeded purely because Congress was fashioning a new-gen success-story template that could be transported onto the national scene when needed. When that image exploded, a silent but obvious countdown began in Delhi. Threat perception invoked the political instinct in Omar. When a politician sees power slipping away he begins to prepare the conditions for a return. Power is the aphrodisiac. If Delhi cannot provide it, someone else will mix the potent powder. Loyalty to India got Omar an internship in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ministry and barely 18 months of comfort under Rahul Gandhi’s protection. Time to move on.
The Great Indian Hope remembered, therefore, that Kashmir only acceded to India but did not merge with it; he did not add that this was thanks to Dr Karan Singh’s father Maharaja Hari Singh, who, unlike other princely states, insisted on Article 370 before signing the document of accession, because independence has been co-opted into a Kashmiri Muslim agenda rather than a Kashmiri cause.
This makes Omar Abdullah an accessory to India rather than a citizen. An accessory’s loyalty cannot be taken for granted, and so if there is a bit of adultery in an open marriage, why kick up a fuss? The Abdullahs like keeping a door open to Delhi and an ear open to Islamabad. They have to survive, you see, just in case you asked.
Peace is rarely an accident. Omar Abdullah negotiated a temporary settlement with the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, the openly pro-Pakistan Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani welcomed the price of purchase after Omar made his “accession-not-merger” speech in the Assembly.
The discovery of Omar Abdullah as a Sheikh of Options is interesting. Far more intriguing will be the rediscovery of his mentor in Congress. Fudge won’t work. Omar was not writing a treatise, he was delivering a political speech fully conscious of its repercussions. So far the Congress left led by Digvijay Singh has knee-jerked towards Omar; its spokesmen bought time; and Rahul Gandhi preferred his usual way out of a dilemma, silence. At some point silence becomes consent. This is not the only problem. Farooq Abdullah is in the Union Cabinet. Does father share son’s views? If yes, what are the consequences?
Omar might have gained a little temporary space in Kashmir; he has lost many times that in the rest of India. It is not an intelligent trade-off for a man still at the beginning of his political career.