What Omar, Rahul could learn from Orissa CM

By Rajdeep Sardesai
26 September 2010 23:01 IST

It was a made-for-television moment: on the night of the Jammu and Kashmir election verdict in 2008, we had the Abdullahs, Dr Farooq and Omar, together on an analysis show. "Would you rule yourself out as the next chief minister?" we asked Dr Abdullah. "In politics, nothing can be ruled out," said the veteran leader with an ambitious glint. His son responded more firmly, "I think the people of the state have already delivered the mandate and I don't think chief ministership is an issue."

Indeed, no one in the studio thought it was. A fresh-faced, good-looking 30-something politician versus a battle-scarred five-time septuagenarian CM: it seemed a no-contest. As Omar was sworn in CM a few days later, it appeared as if Kashmir was preparing for a generational change, an era of fear was being left behind and the Valley was ready to step into a sunshine of hope. Omar Abdullah had come to symbolise a Kashmiri yearning for a new political order. Or so we thought. More so, because there was a widespread belief that Rahul Gandhi's intervention had been critical in ensuring that the chief ministerial baton was passed onto the son and not the father. Sepia-tinted pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah juxtaposed with the photo-op provided by the Rahul-Omar duo, the family album was complete.

Both Rahul and Omar were born in the same year, 1970, to super-privileged political dynasties. They were barely walking when the 1971 war broke out and the Simla agreement was signed, and were not even in school when the Sheikh-Indira accord was signed in 1975. In a sense, they were untouched by the tumultuous events of the 1970s; the baggage of history had bypassed them. English-speaking, public school-educated, both had spent a fair amount of time abroad. They were children of a new, globalising India, as much at ease in London as they would be in Lutyens Delhi. If the cut-and-thrust of democratic politics had shaped their grandparents era, this was an India which was being dominated by enterprise and technology.

Not surprisingly, young India identified with them. Two clean-cut, telegenic, tech-savvy politicians: the contrast with the older, cynical and corrupt India was much too striking to be missed. When Omar made his impassioned "I am a Muslim and I am an Indian" speech in Parliament during the 2008 nuclear debate, YouTube had found its first celebrity Indian leader. When Rahul spoke of the grief of Kalavati, the Vidarbha farm widow, there was instant appreciation at the emergence of a politician with a difference.

Yet, less than two years later, it's all threatening to come unstuck. Omar finds himself being pushed to the wall, his elitist style of functioning being criticised as remote and insensitive. A sustained campaign has begun to get him to quit in the belief that his very presence as CM offends Kashmiris. The street violence over the last three months in the Valley is seen as an anti-Omar movement that has now been hijacked by the terror-mongers. The dawn of optimism that was sparked off on swearing-in day has descended into a sunset of gloom.

Rahul has been luckier so far. His decision not to become a minister after the UPA's 2009 General Election victory has been his protective armour, cushioning him from the relentless scrutiny that being in high office brings with it. His meetings attract large crowds and in student gatherings, there is a rockstar-like adoration for him. But the fact is that in his home state of Uttar Pradesh - his ultimate karmabhoomi - Mayawati and the BSP have swept all recent by-elections while the Rahul-mentored National Students' Union of India has just lost the Delhi University elections after almost eight years. So, why has the euphoria of the youth brigade begun to evaporate? In Omar's case, it is apparent that the complexity of Jammu and Kashmir's political cauldron has exposed his limitations. The Valley needs a 24x7 homespun CM who can provide a constant sense of reassurance to his troubled people, not a detached CEO who takes his weekends off, is cocooned behind secretariat walls and isn't there to provide a healing touch in tough times. Omar maybe well-intentioned, but he clearly isn't the mass leader who the Kashmiris can derive inspiration from.

Rahul, by contrast, has not really been tried or tested yet. His attempts at democratising the Congress's youth outfits and mobilising party cadres are laudable. Unlike Omar, Rahul at least appears to recognise the value of political symbolism, be it staying in a Dalit home or reaching out to tribals in Niyamgiri. Yet, at 40, Rahul cannot be the eternal young man on a discovery of India, and in states like UP, Bengal and Bihar, the Congress needs more than just the occasional flying visit to revive itself. More importantly, Rahul still hasn't clearly spelt out his vision for new India: soundbites on the Bharat-India divide are hardly a policy prescription for the future.

Perhaps both Rahul and Omar need to move beyond their dynastic origins and become more touchy-feely 'people politicians'. The divine right to rule is a feudal, anti-democratic principle which creates a sense of overweaning entitlement. A famous political surname is a huge advantage in Indian public life, but it also imposes equally large responsibilities. If Rahul and Omar are looking for a role model, they could perhaps take guidance from Naveen Patnaik. The Orissa CM began his political career as an urbane dynast, but through a single-minded commitment to his state, has been transformed into a highly successful mass leader.

Post-script: Over two decades ago, Farooq Abdullah's motorbike pillion ride with actor Shabana Azmi branded him as the 'disco chief minister'. Omar's Eid tryst in Delhi while the Valley was burning has tagged him as the non-resident chief minister. Pity.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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