India Insight

Has Omar Abdullah taken on more than he can handle?

When Omar Abdullah took over as Kashmir’s youngest Chief Minister in January 2009, his coronation befitted a king.

Backed by a resurgent Congress party at the centre, 38-year-old Abdullah’s appointment was seen as a positive step towards bringing a fresh perspective to the troubled state’s political logjams.

That Abdullah came from a family of Kashmir’s best known politicians and was the third generation member to ascend to the post of CM made it imperative that he live up to the expectations of many who wanted an immediate solution to Jammu and Kashmir’s complex problems.

Born to a family that has witnessed political intrigue in the restive state for decades and had a history of alliances with the Congress, Abdullah was seen as the right candidate to a post many deemed as the ‘crown of thorns’.

Like all CMs before him, among the many problems he inherited, Abdullah needed to immediately address allegations of human rights violations, demands for repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, ensure better governance, maintain peace and stability in the region and continue dialogue with the separatists who boycotted elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

Verdict 2008: Jammu and Kashmir’s “vote for democracy”?

As the pro-India National Conference appeared set to emerge as the single largest party in Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections, the writing on the wall is a tad difficult to miss.Fed up of living under the constant shadow of violence in a state divided under religious lines, Kashmiri voters surprised seasoned political pundits by turning up in large numbers to cast their ballots.They defied calls of poll boycott from Muslim separatists and belied fears of violence in the wake of the bitter Amarnath Yatra land row that led to the fall of the Congress-PDP coalition government and imposition of central rule.Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the high voter turnout a “vote for democracy” and Congress President Sonia Gandhi has said this should be a message for “our neighbours” (about what the people of Kashmir want).Whether it is their desire for better governance and development first and the issue of autonomy later, the Jammu and Kashmir voters have set the ball rolling on the counting day in many ways.Conducted in seven phases, the elections this time came on the heels of agitation over the Kashmir government’s decision to give forest land to the trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims.This enraged many Muslims.The government then backed down on its decision, which in turn angered many Hindus in Jammu, the winter capital of the region.The deep divisions that surfaced and the polarized electorate seems to have helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party that has traditionally struggled to make its presence felt in the state. The BJP won 11 seats from Jammu, a gain of 10 seats from 2002.Both the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party have done well in the valley.The National Conference has kept the doors open for a possible alliance with Congress to make the half-way mark in the 87-member assembly.But such an alliance will not come without its customary wariness given the history of their political tie-ups in the late 70s and 80s, most of which were followed by periods of Governor’s rule in the troubled state.It remains to be seen whether the NC and Congress take advantage of the lull in overall violence in the state and live up to voters’ expectations of giving more weightage to development issues.Or will they get cowed down by separatists looking to regain their foothold in the region?