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Father and son stage the lion act before tamed crowd
- ‘Ex’-rated show of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah and has-been central minister Omar
Farooq Abdullah (left) with son at a rally near Srinagar. (AFP)

In Birmingham, I would have taken Omar Abdullah for a Skinhead, though a little past his prime perhaps. Not, however, in Nagam village, 20 miles from Srinagar, in front of a crowd of several thousand chanting “Bhago bhago, nakli sher! Asli sher a-gayi!” The mock lion is Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the chief minister of Kashmir, and the real lion is, of course, Sher-e-Kashmir’s grandson who was 34 last month.

Posters underline the lineage with Farooq and Omar Abdullah posing below a picture of the Sheikh. Father and son also mount a magnificent roadshow. It helps that the audience is their very own, carted in dozens and dozens of packed National Conference trucks, from village to village between flowering apple trees and rows of willow, walnut, almond and poplar.

Nagam was only a halt. Surrounded by troops. We follow Omar at the wheel of his dusty black Mahindra Scorpio, red baseball cap emblazoned with the plough that is the National Conference symbol on his head to Chrar-e-Sharief, five miles later. The shrine is the end of the campaign road.

Cunningly, the People’s Democratic Party, Kashmir’s ruling party and the National Conference’s hated enemy, has been there already. Its green flags, hastily put up overnight, crisscross the National Conference’s red ones.

Father and son pray at the dargah of the 14th century Sufi saint, Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani, whom Hindus revere as Nanda Rishi, and return with makeshift turbans wrapped round their heads. The shrine has been rebuilt in Ladakh’s pagoda style. The prayers mark the end of Omar’s campaign. The mikes were stilled at 5 pm sharp. Omar had told me earlier, “It’s my last day and I shall make the most of it, leaving the house by eight!”

Dr Abdullah — “Doctor Sahib” to Omar — is a consummate performer; his son a chip of the old block. He takes off his red baseball cap and crowns a small boy in the crowd with it. Father and son hold aloft a huge dummy plough draped in red while the rent-a-crowd goes berserk.

Omar, too, keeps the crowd engaged even though they tell me his Kashmiri is broken and I can sense his English is probably better than his Urdu. With a continental European grandmother and Irish mother, Omar is 75 per cent European.

Perhaps that explains the wicker lunch basket from which, prayers at the shrine over, he pulls out his instant coffee, flask of hot water and nan, and sits munching in full view of the crowd gathered below the distant ring of snowcapped peaks. The shrine grants absolution. The crowd has further evidence of his piety when the muezzin’s voice calls out the azaan. Omar dutifully stops. “Let him finish,” he says.

Dr Abdullah acknowledges me with a fistful of almonds taken out of the depths of his pheran, then introduces me round as “editor”. “Ex” I correct him and Omar says, “Aren’t we all' Ex-chief secretary” — pointing to Sheikh Ghulam Rasool who has joined the National Conference — “ex-chief minister (his father), ex-central minister (himself)!” Doctor Sahib is cheerleader, prompter, impromptu performer, even playing the buffoon.

Though his son is the Lok Sabha candidate and he himself styled vaguely patron of the National Conference, he is clearly master of the roadshow and, indeed, of the entire campaign. “Make it easier for me by electing all MY NOMINEES to Lok Sabha” proclaim the posters.

He slips out of the ornate red throne — rather like the ones used in wedding shamianas — they have placed on the stage and is helped down to squat on the edge of the platform, legs dangling over the side. After a moment’s hesitation, Omar follows. The rest have no option but to do the same as a man appears with an enormous ornate samovar and another carries a bucket full of cups. The tea is for hoi-polloi.

Black Cats stand menacingly onstage behind the group. Father and son have both escaped two attempts on their lives. Doctor Sahib tells the media that they were instigated by the state government. He accuses the chief minister of giving orders for father and son “to be taken care of”.

It is a bitter finale to the battle for Srinagar, reminder of the danger that lies concealed in these hills and of the unrelenting threat to safety. Exciting though they are, the elections are only a diversion. Everyone — including the two Abdullahs — here knows that the real tussle is between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf, with George W. Bush looming over them. Kashmir is a pawn in a bigger global game.

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