6 August 2001
NEW DELHI: Don't call him the poster boy of desperate diplomacy. Don't assume that what you are seeing now in Room Number 142 in South Block is a minor artwork made out of the wreckage of Agra. And never, never say that he is all snow white (as in the vale of Kashmir) symbolism: look, here it is, the postmodern face of what the General across the border stupidly calls a dispute and what the Republic of India nationally calls a home truth. Silly you, so eager to caricature Omar Abdullah, the newest minister of state for external affairs.
Ah, the tyranny of context, and Abdullah, at 31, is wise enough to survive that, though please don't tell him that the text is Kashmir and Kashmir alone. That is: his transfer from commerce to foreign affairs may have happened immediately after the unscaled Agra Summit, but that doesn't make his job purely one-dimensional. "Symbolism alone won't help. Lots of hard work is involved. I'm not representing one part of India, I'm representing the whole country. And that's the way it is going to be."
So the current job is not subordinated to his ancestral or religious identity? Certainly not. And he seems to be well prepared to protect himself from the deconstructive spirit of the media, their overemphasis on the Kashmir text -blame it all on Agra. The Omar-exasperation is overwhelming: "I cannot remove my heritage. I'm what I am. I'm a Kashmiri. I'm 31. I belong to the family that I belong to... If that is symbolism, well..." Well, he suggests "you ask the prime minister and his advisers" who have made the choice of putting him in the Foreign Ministry. He knows that you are not going to do that at the moment, so please understand: "You can take me out of Kashmir. You can't take the Kashmiri out of me."
Who can do it to the grandson of Sher-e-Kashmir, who in his framed sepia majesty is watching it all from the woodpanelled wall of his office? Grand-daddy has every reason to be pleased with the quiet progress of cub-e-Kashmir, purring with such confidence and poise from, of all places, Delhi, whose dealings with Srinagar have not always been that happy. A combination of half-sleeves casualness and laptop professionalism and silver-framed family intimacy, Abdullah in office is a perfect picture of business with a personal touch. The latest powerface, also the coolest one, of a dynasty that has dominated the ever volatile destiny of Jammu and Kashmir. Is it a pleasure or burden carrying that piece of history within you?
"It has its advantages, but I don't think it's a hundred per cent good thing. The expectations are much more. The limelight you are thrust into is much more." Then a bit philosophical: "You live with the advantages and the disadvantages. I cannot complain. I'm enjoying the fruits of the family that I belong to." He doesn't think the demands of the forbidding South Block will in any way lessen the enjoyment. Sure, no conflict between his inherited-and often exhibited-Kashmiri conscience and the office he holds? "I don't see why. I'm not going to perform any duty different from what I was doing earlier."
Then he makes the Kashmir proclamation, nothing South Block-shaking: "I believe in the final accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. I believe in respecting the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir who want peace and security." So where is the conflict? "The only conflict that has been there between the Centre and the National Conference is on the question of autonomy. We will talk about it. This autonomy question is an internal matter of the government of India. I don't have to talk about autonomy at the United Nations. I'll keep a low profile when discussions are going on. There is no need to make a noise on this."
True, a minister of state for external affairs, even with Abdullah as his surname, is not supposed to make any noise on the autonomy of Kashmir. Talking Kashmir has to be an art of cautious understatement, something Abdullah, by his own admission, has not mastered yet: "I'm not known for mincing my words." So his family told him: "Now you are in a ministry where you better be careful what you say for whatever you say is not indicative of your position but the position of the government of India." So he tries to hold back. And that may be the reason why he makes his Kashmir solution sound so diplomatically correct: "It's a three-legged table". Leg one: "the military aspect which involves guarding the border and fighting crossborder terrorism." Leg two: "the economic development of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh". The third leg is: good governance. "All are equally important, and we are making progress."
Good governance, you can't disagree, makes Kashmir a very domestic "dispute". Are you losing the heart of Kashmiris-the so-called alienation in the valley-courtesy bad local governance? No understatement, Abdullah goes defensive: "Alienation and all is for the state government to address. I belong to the party that rules the state, and the chief minister happens to be my father. The last thing I'm going to do is to say the alienation is due to the state government." Then he challenges you: "Show me a state government where one hundred per cent of the people are not alienated". Then he goes global and that's fine with somebody new to the Foreign Ministry: "Show me any place in the world where one hundred per cent of the population is unalienated or whatever you call it." Then he goes stoic: " The National Conference had its ups and downs but that is a part of politics." But Omar Abdullah is not here to talk politics.
But politics seems to have been a natural calling for the privileged lad from the valley. Born to Mollie and Farooq Abdullah in Rochford, Essex, educated at Sydenham College, Mumbai, and the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, experienced in corporate marketing, married and the father of two sons, elected to the Lok Sabha at the age of 28, minister of state for commerce and industry at 29, and now in the foreign ministry, the Omar story so far is so good. As if it was all prescripted for the profile writer. Is it like being a babe among the wise old men of the cabinet? "No, no, I don't feel any generational gap in communication." And he is a bit tired of reading those glossy celebrations of the Omar life as one of fast cars and fast life: "My wife and I earn enough to support the lifestyle we have. If I have a lifestyle that I can afford, you are nobody to grudge me that."
So stop trivialising this serious gentleman, who, instead of reading his favourite legal thrillers, is today busy catching up with history: "Reading a lot on Kashmir, India and Pakistan, the Constitution..."
Next time, you never know, he may altogether ditch John Grisham for Henry Kissinger.