It is colder in Srinagar than I imagined, and somehow greyer and bleaker, too. Going by the mainstream media’s declarations of expectancy and hope, I had expected the city to be bathed in festivity; a sea of flowers and buntings. Instead, a steady drizzle turns to snow and there’s a minor earthquake that night.
If the 61% voter turnout in Jammu and Kashmir had somehow galvanized a new thaw, turning Srinagar into a stomping ground of promise and change, there is no evidence. People go about their business and just outside the airport I see the only banner I do (apart from the one outside his house) felicitating JenabOmar Abdullah for becoming the chief minister of the state.
I do what many out-of-town journalists do on assignment in unfamiliar terrain: I quiz my taxi driver about the mood.
Yes, he admits, people are hopeful of change because Omar is young. They expect him to deliver on jobs and development. But they don’t hold out any hopes of a lasting Kashmir solution from the 38-year-old grandson of Sheikh Abdullah. The overall expectations are, at best, muted.
This is actually my first visit to Kashmir (excluding a vacation at the age of three, of which I have no memory). The first thing that strikes me is the different-ness of Srinagar. There are none of the spanking, shining new malls that are being built across other state capitals. There are no gleaming steel and concrete office blocks that I can see. There are no McDonald’s and Pizza Huts that I can discern. No brawny SUVs that thunder down newly laid asphalt speedways driven by the newly rich of other towns and cities.
Instead there is an unmistakable air of neglect that is evident from my taxi window as I drive past ramshackle shops that sell fruits, blankets, cement and hardware: the nuts and bolts of daily survival.
The leafless trees only add to this sense of being in an alien land. Even the people, men in firans (woollen overcoat) with sleeves flapping around them, look different. It is this strong sense of a distinct Kashmiri identity with all its cultural nuances, a senior Srinagar-based journalist tells me, that makes the state different. He doesn’t use the word Kashmiriyat—which describes the state’s syncretic culture—but he says people here believe they are distinct and different from the rest of India, and it is an identity that they are fiercely protective about.
The political challenge that Omar faces is not so much creating jobs and roads so much as walking the tightrope between Kashmiri sub-nationalism and Indian nationalism. As a former Central minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance government, first as the minister of state for commerce and then as the junior foreign minister, Omar’s national credentials are impeccable and unquestionable.
Now the big question that faces him: How will he prove his regional credentials? Already, his critics refer to him as an outsider, but Omar has proved, particularly with his statements in Parliament over the Amarnath land row (he threatened to resign his seat if the killing of protestors by the Armed Forces continued) that he is as Kashmiri as the next man. At the same time, he has eschewed the sort of soft separatism that his political opponents, the People’s Democratic Party’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba seem to have adopted this last election.
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The National Conference, despite its several misadventures with the Central government and the Congress party in particular, is seen as the party of Kashmir, founded by Sheikh Abdullah, who continues to be loved and lionized in the state. Today, there is some questioning on the streets about Omar’s coalition with the Congress. Simply put, Kashmiris wonder: Can the Congress be trusted? For now, they’re willing to wait and watch.
To Omar goes the credit for striking his first success: delinking the Kashmir issue, including azaadi (freedom), from basic bread and butter issues of bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water).
It would be too facile to see the large voter turnout that has brought Omar to head the state as a turning point in Kashmir. Just months ago, we saw one of the largest citizen protests on the streets over the Amarnath land issue. Once again, calls for azaadi rang loud.
The larger issue of identity is far from being resolved and even Omar realizes that with the national elections around the corner and in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes, this is not a good time to get opposing factions to talk across the table. Until that time is right, he seems set to fix more fixable problems in a state that has an estimated 300,000-400,000 unemployed, educated youth.
On the streets, therefore, the optimism is cautious. Nobody expects Omar to wave a magic wand and get Kashmiris the autonomy they want anytime soon. What they do expect are better roads, uninterrupted electricity, teachers who teach and doctors who report to work at government-run hospitals. That’s not asking for a lot.
And should Omar fulfil those expectations, he’ll be well on his way to acquitting himself as Sheikh Abdullah’s worthy grandson.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org