Home / Mint-lounge / Omar Abdullah: a new son over the valley

There is no nameplate outside the house at 40, Gupkar Road, Srinagar. Nothing to indicate who lives behind its tall, black gates. But the presence of unsmiling security guards; the metal detector that all visitors must enter through; a line of babudom’s official car, the Ambassador; and the lone banner congratulating “Jenab Omar Abdullah", the new chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), are dead giveaways.

Once past the guards and the metal detector, you find yourself in a courtyard facing a garden. It’s early evening but the darkness has set in and there’s a light drizzle that will turn to sleet in another few hours. The men who bustle about are varied—young men in trendy short haircuts, older men in loose pherans and white beards. Orders for tea and staccato conversations on the phone can be overheard, punctuated by bursts of laughter.

Peoples’ choice: (clockwise from top) Abdullah greets supporters in Srinagar after his return from New Delhi on 30 December. PTI Photo; he says he wants to keep his sons, Zamir, 11, and Zahir, 10, away from the spotlight; and he met his wife Payal while he was working in Mumbai. Photographs: Javed Shah

The day I meet him, Camp Omar Abdullah is busy making plans to get to Jammu, some 300km away. There, the grandson of Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s most famous nationalist leader known as “the lion of Kashmir", is to meet the governor, stake his claim to form the government and then lead party workers through an open car victory procession. The next day (5 January), he would be formally sworn in as the 11th chief minister of J&K since 1965 (until 1965, the head of the state was designated “prime minister", but that’s another story), a post that’s been held by both his grandfather, the Sheikh, and his father, Farooq Abdullah. Present at the ceremony and watching the new Abdullah guard take over would be Omar’s English mother, Mollie, who divides her time between England and Srinagar, and his three sisters, Safia (who lives in Srinagar), Hinna Collins (who lives in England) and Sara, the youngest, who is married to Congress member of Parliament Sachin Pilot and lives in New Delhi.

The 38-year-old Omar—the youngest chief minister of J&K—is unapologetic about issues of family and dynasty. He says he chose to enter politics, despite some initial discouragement from his father, Farooq. “My father wasn’t keen at all that I join politics, perhaps because he knew first-hand just what it could do to family and personal life," says Omar. But he was just as clear that he wanted to contribute and “do more". The time and effort he was ploughing into the corporate sector would be more gainfully used in public life, he believed.

“Thanks to the family I belong to, I knew that at least my entry would be at a level suitable enough for me to make a contribution," he says with disarming candour. So, in 1998, at the age of 28, Omar chucked his job with ITC Global Holdings and contested the general elections as the National Conference’s (NC) candidate from Srinagar.

Also See The Lesser Known Facts About Omar Abdullah (PDF)

Back then, the NC was in alliance with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA). When the Vajpayee government fell after just 13 months, following the withdrawal of support by Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and fresh elections were called for, Omar stood again as the NC candidate from Srinagar. This time his victory gave him a berth in Vajpayee’s cabinet as minister of state for commerce. In July 2001, Vajpayee decided to prop up this articulate, educated and young face in his cabinet as the Muslim face of his government: Omar was made the minister of state for external affairs—a post he would hold on to for a year and a half before quitting Parliament to stand for state elections, from Ganderbal, a constituency that has long been considered an NC stronghold and one which had been represented by the Sheikh himself in 1975 and 1977, and by Farooq in 1983, 1987 and 1996. No Abdullah had ever lost from here.

Omar’s chief opponent was Qazi Mohammad Afzal of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Conventional wisdom had it that it would be a cakewalk for Omar and that once elected, his party would sail ahead to form the government with, perhaps, even Omar at the helm.

No such thing happened. When the results to the 2002 state assembly elections were announced, Omar was defeated by a mere 2,000 votes. But it was all that was required. Shocked by the defeat of the heir apparent, the National Conference, which won a total of 28 seats and had the single largest number of seats in the state, accepted moral defeat and declared that it would not stake its claim to form the government after all. The reign of the PDP had begun.

Ask Camp Omar about his humiliating defeat at his maiden state election and the answers are vague. “It was anti-incumbency," says Nasir Sogami, an NC MLA who has just won his first election from Lal Chowk. Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, a former chief secretary and a core member of Omar’s re-election team, says it was because Farooq had stopped visiting the constituency due to the infighting by other party workers. Those less friendly to Omar put it down to various factors: Omar had to pay the price of his party’s alliance with the NDA and he was seen to be an “outsider", someone who had lived outside Kashmir all his life and could barely speak the language.

Regardless of why he was defeated, Omar realized one thing: He had to move quickly and move decisively to recapture lost ground. He had already flung his hat into state politics by becoming the president of the NC in 2002. Now he had to prove that he was as Kashmiri as the next man; the face of the 21st century NC who would bring development and jobs to his people.

In 2003, he finally decided to break with the NDA, an alliance that was proving to be an embarrassment in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. Once again, there are many versions as to why Omar didn’t quit the Vajpayee government immediately after the riots.

Omar’s own explanation is that to quit at that time would have meant holding Vajpayee responsible for the riots. His resignation would have had no impact on Narendra Modi. Others whisper that although an anguished Omar was desperate to quit, his party seniors, including his father, prevented him from doing so. Indeed, New Delhi was rife with all sorts of rumours: that a “deal" was being worked out by offering Farooq all sorts of inducements, including the post of President of India.

The NDA albatross is a heavy one for Omar to bear, and the young politician has tried to explain his dilemma on several occasions—including, most notably, during his famous “I am a Muslim and I am an Indian and I see no distinction between the two" speech during the no-trust vote against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on 22 July last year. “I made the mistake of standing with them once. On the question of Gujarat, I did not resign when my conscience told me to and my conscience has still not forgiven me. I will not make the same mistake again," he said in the speech that is regarded as epochal and path-breaking in Parliament.

When Omar looks back at that speech and the passion and intensity that drove it, he seems to be a bit taken aback himself: “I knew what I wanted to say but I had been jerked around for two whole days waiting for a chance to speak. Then, this whole money thing (the cash for votes scandal) broke out and I was told that there would be no more debates and that the House would be going in for a vote without any more speeches. I was just so angry because I felt I needed to explain my position on the Indo-US nuclear deal." It was another angry Muslim MP, Asaduddin Owaisi, who threatened the UPA floor managers that he, and very likely Omar too, would abstain from voting if not given a chance to speak. “I guess I was just so angry that all that passion came from that anger," laughs Omar.

Writers in many mainstream papers couldn’t control their euphoria and went ahead to herald the arrival of a new, modern voice for Indian Muslims. But Omar was just as clear about the road ahead. Yes, Indian Muslims needed a voice that would speak for them. But his destiny was in Kashmir. “My responsibility first and foremost is to be the voice of Jammu and Kashmir. I have to recognize that I have a great responsibility here," he says.

So, it was back to state elections and—the surprising bit—back to Ganderbal, the constituency that had voted against him. “The decision to go back and stand from Ganderbal was an emotional rather than a practical one. Perhaps I had my school motto ‘Never give in’ at the back of my mind. It was a lot of hard work because it is doubly difficult to win back a constituency you have already lost from. But I was determined to win," says Omar.

Adopting an electoral plank of governance, development, employment—bread and butter issues—rather than autonomy or the soft separatist line that his opponents Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba seemed to have adopted, Omar personally went door to door, canvassing for votes and asking the people to give him another chance. Gone was the slight awkwardness of 2002. Gone too was the outsider tag—though his opponents still love to try and stick it on him. This was a man who spoke fluent Kashmiri and spoke about local Kashmir issues. “People were asking for 20th century stuff—clean water, better electricity supply, pucca roads, teachers who teach. I know that I cannot make everyone happy. But I’m going to do my very best."

When the results came in, Omar had won by the third-largest margin anywhere in the state. The NC was back in the game.

We will perhaps never quite know what exactly happened on the night of 28 December. Until that fateful dinner between Farooq and his only son, it seemed clear that Farooq was going to be the chief minister of the state, again. Farooq, famously known in the state as “flip-flop Farooq", himself had told a TV channel that they were talking to the “future chief minister of the state", and then told another channel just hours later that he would prefer to be in Parliament, leaving the state to Omar.

Obviously something had happened in the span of those few hours for Farooq to change his mind. Had he been offered a deal, a plum post of sorts, by the UPA? Had Omar’s personal equation with Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi swung things in his favour? Had the Congress flatly refused to get into a coalition with Farooq, who is regarded as something of a maverick? Had Farooq himself baulked at heading a coalition with the Congress, which is regarded as something of a spoiler in Valley politics? Or had Omar’s mother Mollie, who had flown in from England, confronted her husband with an ultimatum that her son’s time had come?

All of these rumours, and more, float in the bazaars of Srinagar. Certainly, Omar and his father are said to have an uneasy relationship. And although Omar has never publicly spoken out against his father, the two men have very different styles of working. Omar is measured, proper, organized and very public school in his approach. Farooq is emotional, disorganized, feudal—a man led by his heart even though that heart has often taken him down thorny paths. One of the first calls Omar made after it was clear that he was going to be chief minister was to his political opponent Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “I owed him that courtesy," he explained to a supporter. It was a call his father would never have made.

Omar doesn’t lack friends and supporters: Nationalist Congress Party head Sharad Pawar is a political mentor—Omar stayed at his house in Mumbai when he was studying commerce at Sydenham College. Priyardarshini Raje Scindia, the wife of Congress minister Jyotiraditya Scindia ties a raakhi on him (her parents, the Gaekwads, also took Omar under their wing when he was studying in Mumbai), and Sachin Pilot, another rising star in the Congress firmament, is his brother-in-law.

Ask Omar about his political role models, however, and it is his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah who figures first. “The fact that the National Conference has remained relevant in the state is because of his work," he says.

Omar’s memories of his grandfather are fairly sharp—he was 12 when the Sheikh passed away. He remembers the picnics and family outings. What he loved most about those days was riding in the jeep of his grandfather’s motorcade, and being allowed to press the button that activated the siren. “Sometimes he would say no and I couldn’t press it. It was just devastating."

Generation next: (left) Abdullah’s son Zahir rode on top of the car with him during the victory parade after Abdullah won his seat in Ganderbal; with father Farooq Abdullah, with whom he shares an uneasy working relationship. Photographs: Javed Shah

Omar has been circumspect about keeping his own sons, Zamir, 11, and Zahir, 10, away from the limelight. Perhaps the only exception was soon after his Ganderbal victory when he propped Zahir up against him in an open car victory parade. “Both the kids were riding in the back of the car with my in-laws. I asked them if they wanted to come up with me. Zamir is rather shy and decided to remain in the back but Zahir was game," says Omar, making it clear that this was a one-time aberration. For once, he wanted his children to understand what “being in politics" was all about.

It’s early days yet and Omar and his wife, Payal, have not yet taken a decision on where the boys will go to school. Omar himself was despatched to boarding school, a decision taken by his mother, an English nurse who met, fell in love and married the young doctor Farooq while he was working in England.

“My mother was just incredibly grounded," says Omar, his love and admiration for her obvious. She was a woman who made her own bed tea, bringing up a tray for her four children herself every morning. The Abdullahs tried hard to ensure that their kids got as normal an upbringing as possible. But that was easier said than done. Teachers would try and curry favour by “suggesting" to Omar the important questions for the exams. When Omar innocently informed his mother about what was going on, she was aghast and he had pretty much sealed his fate. He was off to Lawrence School, Sanawar, where he would remain for the next eight years before moving to Mumbai to study commerce at Sydenham College.

For many, Omar’s pan-nationalism—the fact that he was born in England, spent his formative years in the hills of Himachal Pradesh before moving to study and work in Mumbai—appeals to people. He met his wife, Payal, a Hindu, while they were working at The Oberoi, Mumbai. They were married in September 1994. And while Omar is a full-time politician, he likes to keep family and politics separate. His wife rarely speaks to the press and when the work’s done at the end of the day, Omar returns home, shutting the door firmly behind him.

That Omar is a bit of a fitness freak is well known. A treadmill occupies one corner of his home office and an iPod is nestled in its Bose SoundDock. There’s nothing to suggest that this is the office of the newest star of Kashmiri politics, nothing except for a stack of books on Kashmir—Kashmiriyat by Madanjeet Singh, The Valley of Kashmir by Walter R. Lawrence and The Truth About Kashmir by S.R. Kulkarni. Skiing and swimming are his favourite pastimes, he plays tennis and squash, and is a member of the J&K River Runners’ Association.

He’s also a tech buff. Soon after his July Parliament speech, Omar found that he was quite a star on YouTube and decided to get a blog going that would talk directly to his readers. Omar’s blog was an instant hit and he was candid enough to express his disapproval at President Pratibha Patil posing with an automatic weapon during a visit to J&K, calling the photo op a “forgettable Sylvester Stallone movie". But the blog was discontinued after a few weeks. “I can do a lot of personal abuse; I studied in a boarding school after all. But the abuse got so bad that they were attacking my wife, my mother, my sisters and my children. I decided to just shut it down."

Like another young leader in another part of the world who said “Yes, we can" and moved a nation to tears, Omar holds the promise of youth and change. His appeal lies in the fact that he is the antithesis of his father and the other regimes that have preceded him. His mantras are governance, jobs, rooting out corruption and, for now, he’s holding the larger Kashmir issue in abeyance.

But Kashmir has been the graveyard of reputations. Whether Omar will dig his own or whether he will finally green his valley remains to be seen. For now, he has time on his side.

Namita Bhandare writes a fortnightly column, Looking Glass, for Mint.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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