Not a puppet but counterfeit: Mein aisa kyon hoon
While the sun was still shinning over his empire, Omar Abdullah re-branded himself by switching his hair dye, apparently to create an artificial halo of maturity and authenticity around his leadership. Less than a year later, dogged by its reverse consequences, he is busy in re-packaging brand-Omar with an incompatible shift in his political vocabulary (from ‘I am proud to be an Indian’ to Kashmir is an ‘international issue’). Between these two launching points, a sea change has occurred around him, fracturing his image and mortally wounding his moral authority to lead. As reality degenerated into parody under his wayward leadership people stood up to rescue the reality.
It has rightly been said that if you wish to ‘know’ a man, place him in authority. Less than two years down the (power) line, Omar looks a poor caricature of his initial knight-on-a-white-charger image. Sort of riches to rags story in purely political terms. Because he did not have to struggle for fame, name and position which fell into his lap due to a genealogical accident of history he deluded himself into believing that he knew everything and knew the best of all. He showed no tolerance for listening to counter arguments and betrayed a vindictive trait to ‘fix’ those who differed with him. In the process, his leadership, like the government headed by him, stumbled upon blunder after blunder. By the time he discovered the grass grown under his own feet it was too late. Now he is left to struggle against himself; this re-launching and re-branding, by switching appearance and vocabulary, are signs of his inner struggle for outward survival.
Democracy requires active participation of all concerned. Democratic enterprise runs into serious trouble when any partner is deluded by self-righteousness and views himself as sole repository of wisdom. Omar’s woolly ideas about governance crashed before taking off. He refused to acknowledge the crucial difference between being a hands-on chief minister and an absentee chief minister, in a place like Kashmir. Even today he remains convinced that there was nothing wrong in his being away all too often from the highly volatile place of his duty.
Despite what happened and what is happening around him, Omar remains obsessed with his personal image. The other day he laboured hard to assert ‘I am not a puppet’. It was a needless clarification. Most certainly, he is not a puppet because his public profile does not square up with that imagery. Invisibility of manipulator from the stage is the foremost identifiable feature of puppetry. Here in this case the manipulator has always been right in front and never hidden behind the stage. Did we not hear—and see–someone proclaiming loudly from Delhi the timing for imposing and relaxing curfew in Omar’s estate. We also heard another person there issuing the directive to the chief minister to ‘go and reach out’ to his people; hasty ‘public meetings’ held in the Dak bungalows at Baramulla and Anantnag showed faithful compliance. We also heard and witnessed Omar being virtually goaded from Delhi to make his one and only trip to a local hospital to meet injured persons. The latest in the series was the announcement, again from Delhi, about re-opening of educational institutions in the Kashmir Valley. There was no puppet-like manipulation. It was remote controlled governance in full public view. Handlers of the remote control appeared in flesh and blood. That is certainly not puppetry.
One hears some of Omar’s disillusioned admirers dubbing him as a dummy. But I feel that even that description does not fit him. In fact, he showed it right at the beginning. Omar went about erecting his inner castle with great care and calculation. He surrounded himself with a coterie that insulated him from ‘unwanted’ influences. Ministers and officers meeting him, after screening by the ‘durban’, are summarily disposed off. It takes the chief minister more time to fly to and from a district board meeting outside the state capital than he generally spares for attending such meetings. Need for following up the decisions taken at these board meetings has never crossed his mind. Such superficiality in administrative functioning is matched by near-total absence of any desire for political backup. Calculated measures like these, right or wrong, cannot be ascribed to either a puppet or a dummy. Perhaps a better definition would by ‘governance deficit’, the word coined specially for Omar by the union cabinet’s committee on security affairs.
Since Omar himself triggered this debate by asserting ‘I am not a puppet’ questions continue to be raised about how exactly to describe his leadership. Fairness demands that objective assessment be made after looking his entire career graph. Before his para-dropping on the Kashmir stage in 2002, Omar Abdullah did his apprenticeship in New Delhi which is the market for trading in very high-value political currency. In comparison Omar and the likes of him become the small change (coin) of currency in circulation. Nobody has time to check the coin while offering or accepting it. That is how genuine becomes indistinguishable from counterfeit in the corridors of high-value political power.
Omar’s second stint started with his being para-dropped on the centre state of his home ground in 2002. Instantly he became the president of his National Conference and also its chief ministerial candidate. His maiden brush with ground reality ended in disaster. He earned more than one dubious ‘first’ in the ensuing test. The NC was dethroned, Abdullah family was routed for the first time and the chief ministerial candidate lost his dynasty’s stronghold, Ganderbal, to a non-entity. There is really no mentionable achievement on his report card till the next round in 2008 when his ship-wrecked party turned to his father for a rescue act. Omar had been replaced by Farooq Abdullah as the face of their party. The story behind Omar’s ascension to the throne is too well known to need repetition. It was an immoral, artificial act of power-politics. As the tragic human cost of his being retained at the helm keeps on mounting, Omar as a leader has showed that he is certainly not a puppet or a dummy but undoubtedly a counterfeit that keeps bouncing back from circulation.