Omar Abdullah is right.
When he told CNN-IBN, “If in this day and age we are relying on speed post to inform a family that their loved one is going to be executed then there is something seriously wrong with the way we do things” he put his finger on the issue.
There is more at stake here than just coalition politics or acting tough before elections. There is something fundamentally rotten here that has nothing to do with the actual case against Afzal Guru. Abdullah obviously has quite the political tightrope to walk. He needs to soothe tempers in Kashmir without sounding like he is tone deaf to the anger there. He has to defend a curfew without sounding like Big Brother. And he has to distance himself from the UPA without sounding like he is filing divorce papers.
In those circumstances, a politician could sound shrill and aggrieved (Mamata) or clueless and defensive (Tarun Gogoi after the Assam riots). Or he could just play the usual blase "everything under control" card that is a political favourite.
Leave his politics aside for the moment. In this interview Abdullah managed a rare political feat. He came across as a real person, not an automaton spouting canned sound bytes.
Here are five things other politicians would do well to learn from the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister.
How to make a point without grandstanding. Abdullah made no bones about the fact that he didn’t like how Afzal Guru’s execution went down. But he did not pander to either side. He did not play the victim card and wriggle out by claiming he was completely in the dark. “Once Ajmal Kasab was executed most of us got the sense it’s a question of when, not if,” he said. Nor did he try to score cheap political points after the fact and say he won’t rest till Guru’s body is brought home to Kashmir. As the interviewer pressed him again and again for his reaction to the news he said simply and firmly “When the phone call came, (my reaction) was nothing. Fine. It’s not like we were being given an option. You are not being asked should we, can we.” In short, he said whether he approved of it or not was moot. His responsibility going forward was as the chief minister of his state. The interview was actually about the issue, not him. Other than one comment about being camped out in Srinagar instead of Jammu he made no attempt to project himself as the hero.
How to talk about the larger issue. At a time when political parties are happy to support and oppose the death penalty selectively, Abdullah said simply, “I am not a great proponent of death penalty. But I am even less of a proponent for a selective adoption of it. If you have it please for god’s sake please don’t use it selectively.” That actually takes some political courage in India these days when capital punishment has been pretty much wrapped in the national flag. It takes even more courage to refuse to be part of the firecrackers-and-mithai splurges when someone is hanged. “I am not going to get into political jingoism. Celebrating a death is hardly a very human thing to do,” said Abdullah.
How to sound like a human being. Politicians increasingly struggle to sound human because they are either busy fanning outrage or doling out sops. But when Abdullah expressed his anguish about the Guru’s family not being informed about his impending execution, he actually sounded like a normal person. “As a human being I find it very difficult to reconcile myself to the fact that we executed a person who wasn’t given the opportunity to see his family for the last time,” he said. The government of India hides behind the Speedpost excuse to pretend it’s done its part. But honestly, this is not about the crimes Guru was convicted of. It’s about common human decency. “Come on, for god’s sake it’s not like this country can’t keep a secret. I am not talking here as CM or politician, purely as a human being this is something that bothers me,” said Abdullah. And it should bother all of us no matter what we feel about Guru.
How to not duck the question. He didn’t deny the media blackout in the state. He didn’t deny there was a crackdown or that protesters had been injured. He had a couple of examples to show that as a chief minister he had to deal with the deadly effects of false rumours spreading like wildfire. For example, a rumour that Guru’s mother had died after getting the news or that Geelani had been taken into custody and had a heart attack. One can still argue about the need for the news blackout but at least the man called it “unfortunate” and hopefully “short term” and didn't try and pretend it was not happening. And by the way, he was not shy about smacking Geelani down for his "crocodile tears" now.
How to show the media its place. The interview repeatedly tried to draw Abdullah out and force him to throw down the gauntlet to the UPA. And Abdullah refused again and again to take the bait. What was especially striking was that he quietly and forcefully told the media that as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir he can, and will, talk to Delhi on his own. He does not need a television channel to be his conduit. “I don’t threaten through television channels or newspapers. Whatever discussions I have to have with the UPA or Government of India, I will do that,” he said. And then just to make that point crystal clear he showed that he knows full-well that interviews are a double edged sword. Asked if he was now engaged in “wait and watch” vis-à-vis the UPA, he said “The moment you say wait and watch, your ticker is going to say Omar threatens the UPA. That is not what I am doing.”
Omar Abdullah is by no means a miracle worker. His tenure as the chief minister is checkered at best. Even his television interview has come under attack from the opposition in the state which complained rightly that the cable television came back on in the Valley when the interviews aired and then was gone again. “Omar is allowed to speak, nobody else is, that is outrageous to say the least,” Naeem Akhtar, the spokesman of the PDP told the media.
All fair points, but at least in his interview Omar Abdullah came across as something more genuine than the usual calculating political animal. And in these mealy-mouthed times when politicians either don't talk at all or say too much without saying anything, that is worth noting.