Omar Abdullah’s appointment as the new Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the strife-ridden border state. At a time when separatists had given a call to the people to boycott the polls and when Islamabad was attempting to rake up the Kashmir issue once again, young Abdullah represents hope for a better future for his people. The third generation of the Abdullahs to be appointed Chief Minister, Omar is the modern face of Kashmir. But he faces a formidable challenge ahead.
The PDP is out of power but is not out. Its leaders, Mehbooba Mufti and her father and former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, will lead the opposition challenge. However, they will find it difficult to accommodate the other opposition party, the BJP, in their plans.
The most important lesson from the polls is that the people of the three regions have ensured that the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, will have a role in day- to-day affairs. While the Congress will be part of the government headed by Omar Abdullah, the BJP will sit in the opposition. The two regional parties will now be spearheading the government and the opposition. The will of the people is clear. They have accepted Indian democracy and the message of the polls is that Kashmiris wish to be closer to the Indian state than to Pakistan or for that matter the jihadis who have been waging war on their behalf.
There is a message also for the separatists and the Hurriyat Conference leaders will have to reinvent their agenda if they do not wish to be irrelevant in the changing politics of the state. Though the Hurriyat has always hesitated in participating in the electoral process in the state, this is the first time it has faced total rejection by the people it claims to represent. Some of its leaders who have close connections with Islamabad must review their alliances if they want to remain in the mainstream of Kashmiri politics.
Omar Abdullah has proven nationalist credentials and his speech in Parliament during the trust vote on July 22 bears testimony to his commitment to India. All eyes will be on him as he steers his state through these troubled times. He has to carry the youth with him while addressing the basic issues which confront the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The Congress has wisely decided to back him since the PDP had proved untrustworthy towards the end of the tenure of the previous government. The people obviously did not forget the circumstances under which Ghulam Nabi Azad was made to resign a few months before his tenure ended.
But the PDP’s political stand was apparently driven by ground-level compulsions. There are many who believe that if the Mufti had hesitated in withdrawing support to Azad, the separatists would have filled the vacuum and made things even more difficult in Kashmir. In fact, by speaking in a language with political idioms borrowed from the separatists, the PDP ensured that it not only survived but also has returned with a bigger vote share and more seats.
Omar’s elevation marks the change of guard in the state. This could be a precursor to a similar development at the national level. Omar is perhaps the youngest leader in present times to become the Chief Minister of a state and there are many like him who are likely to assume greater responsibility in the near future. The national elections are not far away. The focus will shift to younger leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Ajay Maken, Deependra Hooda and others like them.
Omar Abdullah’s swearing-in will signal a new beginning for the border state. And since there is no Kashmiri Pandit in the assembly for the first time, he will have to ensure that the rights of Kashmiri Pundits are safeguarded. Change has come to J&K. It may soon come to New Delhi. Between us.