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‘My credibility was damaged’

Saturday, June 27, 2009 03:30:45 PM, The Telegraph

 J & K Chief Minister

Omar Abdullah

Rahul Gandhi may have made the word ‘young’ fashionable again in Indian politics but none of his generation has had to wear a crown of thorns like Omar Abdullah does. At 39, Abdullah is running the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s most sensitive state, as the youngest chief minister in the country. The crown had for the first few months been sitting easy on his head. The last eight weeks,however, have been a test. On May 30, two women were allegedly raped and murdered by security forces, an incident that triggered widespread protests. At a news conference a few days later, Omar ran into a firestorm by stating that initial police reports suggested the two women had died by drowning. The going has been tough since then for the Abdullah scion. Every move he makes is under public scrutiny. In an exclusive interview with Muzaffar Raina of The Telegraph, Omar acknowledges the period has been difficult and that his statement in the Shopian case damaged his personal credibility.

The Telegraph: How is the youngest chief minister coping with the post-honeymoon pressures of politics?

Omar: I wasn’t expecting as long a honeymoon as I got. I think it is important that a vibrant media keeps the government on its toes, so long as what is written or what is said is objective and is based on facts. I have no complaints with the media. The media does an important job in any democracy and particularly in a state like Jammu and Kashmir where so much can go wrong. But it is also important that people working in the media set aside their personnel bias and report a story objectively. That is all one expects. But are they free of bias? Unfortunately, not.

TT: Has life become lonely at the top for you?

Omar: To be honest with you, yes. There are times when one feels lonely in as much as you want to vent your feelings, express a sense of anguish, a sense of frustration, a sense of anger. Post-Shopian, I saw that the press conference (of June 3) had gone against me. There was so much in-built anger at myself that I wanted to take out.

TT: Do you think your plain speaking has been your biggest weakness?

Omar: I have not done much plain speaking, but yes, possibly my reluctance not to answer questions posed to me has been something I have to undo. Now (I am) going to be lot more circumspect about the questions that I take and the answers that I give. Clearly there is an ability to twist an answer to suit a predetermined mindset, which is unfair.

TT: Where did it go wrong with Shopian?

Omar: It is important to see the whole thing in sequence. I came to the press conference not to agree with what the police were saying. I didn’t come there to suggest that no crime has taken place. I came there to accept that we are dissatisfied with the initial findings and an in-depth inquiry is required, independent of the government and the best way to do that was through a judicial inquiry. The mistake I made was when I was asked what the initial findings were. And I shared those.

TT: Do you think that it undid a lot of the goodwill you had?

Omar: Well, it certainly damaged my own personal credibility and to an extent the credibility of the government as well. As I said, the intention was not wrong, my intention was to answer a question that had been posed to me. Unfortunately, certain friends of mine decided that I was agreeing with the police by expressing that view. In hindsight, it was a mistake and I should have been more careful and as I said I shall be very choosy in the questions that I take and the answers that I give.

TT: No other young generation leader has been thrown into the deep end at such a short time as you. Do you regret taking the plunge as chief minister?

Omar: Not at all. I don’t have a moment of regret. There have been days when things got a little rough, when I get a little short-tempered with people around me, but those days have been few and far between. I have a great belief that a lot of what is happening is orchestrated to distract this government, to derail it, make it look so inward-looking that we are not able to fulfil the commitments we made to people. Therefore I have been very careful that in spite of all the provocation, we have tried to maintain as much as possible a business-as-usual approach.

TT: At any point of time have you thought of quitting the job?

Omar: No, I have only just started.

TT: At possible moments of despair, do you wish to switch sides with your father who has a more relaxed job (as Union minister of the relatively low-profile department of new and renewable energy)?

Omar: My father has earned the relaxation that he has. I have commitments with my party, my coalition partners and more than that, with the state of Jammu and Kashmir. I have never been a person to run away from difficulties. I didn’t run away when we lost the elections in 2002, though I took full responsibility for that defeat. I worked to keep the party alive, toured extensively, it is not in my nature to run away.

TT: How have these six months been different from the rest of your life and has it affected your personal life?

Omar: There are no comparisons. In terms of workload, pressure, learning, both from other people’s experiences as from my own, there is no comparison, the responsibility that comes with the job of chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. I think in the entire context of India’s polity this is perhaps a unique opportunity. To that extent it has affected my personal life but it is not for me to complain. I wasn’t forced in this position. I am here of my own choosing.

TT: Why has the situation come to this point?

Omar: There are multiple reasons for that, partly it is the individual events that have taken place, partly individual events have been orchestrated. Shopian was an event that I think required better handling on part of the government. There are lessons to be learnt but there have been incidents after that where I believe we have been very swift in reacting and we avoided what could otherwise have been a very messy situation.

TT: Is it the separatists or any mainstream party that is giving you more trouble? Who is orchestrating the incidents?

Omar: Strangely enough, there is a convergence of interest among the principal opposition party (PDP) and some separatist elements. There are clear indicators that are available with us about how these forces have converged. If I am not mistaken, the Union home minister has revealed that a lot of trouble was fomented by parties that have not accepted their defeat in the elections. Convergence means they have joined hands, they have a common interest in keeping the pot boiling, there is a politics of blood that is being played, the moment there is trouble they want to add to this trouble, rather than reducing it.

TT: Has the controversy weakened your position in the government?

Omar: The government continues to move forward. Yes, it has been a difficult period that I personally and the state have gone through. If you look at it in its totality, we have been the victim of some highly exaggerated reporting. There have been pockets of trouble in the Valley but to suggest that the whole Valley is up in flames is totally exaggerated.

 

 

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