When Omar Abdullah took his first plunge into Kashmir politics in 1998, the odds were stacked heavily against him. Separatists were at their peak and the National Conference, founded by his grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, almost 50 years ago, was seen as a stooge of New Delhi.
Born to Farooq Abdullah and a British mother, Omar Abdullah was far removed from the violence that was happening in Kashmir. He could barely speak Kashmiri. His mother, Mollie, who was shocked by the rise of militancy in Kashmir and had left India along with her three daughters for England, had declared to her husband: “He will join politics only over my dead body.’’
Ten years later, Omar Abdullah is all set to become the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir. At 38, he will be the youngest chief minister in the current crop. He has brought National Conference back into the reckoning in the state. More important, he has stepped out of the shadow of his father, Farooq Abdullah, who is widely seen as careless and flamboyant.
The mood in the valley was dead against the Abdullahs not so long ago. After all, Omar Abdullah had served in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), first as the minister of state for commerce and then as the junior foreign minister. The NDA liked to project him as its Muslim face. But, back home in Kashmir, it was seen as another deal by Farooq Abdullah to get his son a ministerial berth. This was also the period when the Gujarat riots were held and anger amongst Muslims ran high.
Naturally, the National Conference did badly in the 2002 Assembly elections. Omar Abdullah lost from the family’s traditional seat of Ganderbal. Nevertheless, he learnt his lesson and moved quickly to control the damage. At a press conference in Srinagar, he admitted his mistakes and sought forgiveness. Next year, he snapped all ties with the NDA. Omar Abdullah followed it with the disclosure that he had on several occasions, after the Gujarat riots, offered to resign.
Henceforth, he said and did what the people of Kashmir like. Unlike his father’s constant tirades against Pakistan, he took a more conciliatory route; he proposed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to probe custodial deaths and other human rights violations; and in the recent Amarnath row, he came out openly in favour of the Kashmiris.
He cleverly built bridges with the Congress in New Delhi during the recent trust vote in Parliament forced by the Left parties, though the Congress was in an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party in Srinagar.
Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference has just two Lok Sabha MPs, came to meet a senior minister to negotiate their support. For one and a half hours, he grilled the minister on different technical, legal and diplomatic aspects of the Indo-US nuclear deal. “My only requirement was that I should be satisfied about various questions. Now I am satisfied with your explanations. But I have to talk to my father and convince him,” Omar Abdullah told his host.
The senior minister was none other than External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. He took it upon himself to convince Omar. “I just told him, ‘Omar saab, you have to support us. This is in national interest’. And he readily agreed,” said Mukherjee. “I can see traits of Sheikh Abdullah in Omar Abdullah.”
His “I am a Muslim and an Indian too” speech in Parliament during the trust vote, repeated ad nauseam on national television, made him an instant hit with the country’s youth. Victory in the Jammu & Kashmir elections was the logical next step.
Omar Abdullah has friends at other places too. He is treated literally as a son by Sharad Pawar, the Union agriculture minister and the powerful chief of the Nationalist Congress Party. His links with Pawar became stronger when he attended Sydenham College in Mumbai for his commerce degree. It was in Mumbai, where he was working for a private firm, that Omar Abdullah met his future wife Payal, the daughter of a senior BJP leader from Haryana. Also, his sister, Sara, is married to the rising Congress star, Sachin Pilot.