Saturday, July 10, 2010

When leaders fail, tragedy follows

Abnormal situations are the tests of leadership. In Kashmir the situation has been abnormal for a long time and no leadership came up that could meet it with imagination. Hopes were kindled a year ago when elections in Kashmir saw the highest turnout in its history and eventually Omar Abdullah became the youngest chief minister in that history.

He quickly became the biggest disappointment as well in Kashmir’s history. Astonishingly the Chief Minister continued to live in Delhi for months on the plea that his family was settled there and his kids were going to school there. With that kind of mentality, it was no wonder that the law-and-order situation in ever-explosive Kashmir deteriorated and the Chief Minister seemed to have no clue as to what to do. Speaking articulately on national television appeared to be his way of handling crises.

Actually the last election was a historical opportunity for Kashmir to turn a new leaf towards peace and progress. Orders by separatist groups to boycott the election were largely ignored by people. Prominent among the voters were young people. It was suddenly there for everyone to see that a new generation had come of age who had seen only violence and unrest and who did not share the political, communal emotionalism of the earlier generation. They longed for peace and opportunities to catch up with other young people in the rest of India and the world.

That new generation was let down by all the political groupings. While Omar Abdullah exhibited both his inexperience and his tendency to take his position for granted because of his heredity and wealth, other political leaders were just as self-obsessed. The main opposition leader, Mehbooba Mufti, is one of the most negative personalities in politics. In power she offered nothing; out of power she agrees with nothing. Other group leaders have small private constituencies to nurture and don’t seem interested in looking at the larger picture.

In the current situation of hightened tension and civilian deaths, the very emergence of a new class called “stone pelters” should have opened the eyes of these leaders as well as the authorities in Srinagar and Delhi. These are not the usual terrorists, suicide bombers and foreign agents. These are the local boys of local families who are angered that, in the name of security, the security forces are killing unarmed boys and girls. This was a time for political leaders to get together in a show of solidarity for the sake of peace. But the Abdullahs and the Muftis and the faction leaders do not have the leadership to understand that.

Do the big leaders in Delhi have that quality? The Prime Minister visited Kashmir recently. That was another good opportunity to announce a policy shift or two that would have reassured the ordinary citizens. The opportunity was missed. All that Delhi could think of was a march by the army and an exhortation from Home Minister Chidambaram to parents in Srinagar to keep their boys home.

In the case of the Naxals, Chidambaram has shifted from his earlier move to use military force against the rebels to accepting the importance of local economic-social development as part of the required solution. In the case of Kashmir, it is time to devise ways that would encourage at least new-generation Kashmiris to think that India and Indians are on their side. The current sentiment of locals looking upon India as an unwanted presence is no compliment to Delhi or to the dynasties that have been ruling Kashmir. In the northeastern states, they still see India as a foreign country.

The priority that Delhi gives to cultivating the US abroad and the likes of DMK and Trinamool at home may be inevitable. But to deny high priority to people’s welfare in important border states is to reinforce their sense of alienation. That is Pakistan’s work, not ours.