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Abdullah dynasty shakes in season of change

Farooq Abdullah, National Conference patron and, at 77, still the reigning swashbuckler of the Kashmiri political stage, may have fought his last battle for the Lok Sabha.

It’s been his toughest race, so close that many believe he could be tripped at the tape for the first time in his career. Should the elder Abdullah lose Srinagar, the siege is set to gather close on the reign of his son and chief minister, Omar.

Jammu and Kashmir elects a new Assembly early this winter and key reverses in the Lok Sabha polls could well presage a spell in political exile for Kashmir’s better-known and oft-reviled political dynasty.

Just as the Nehru-Gandhis appear to be negotiating a new ebb in fortunes, the clan that has ruled Kashmir for the most part is in the drifts of adverse opinion.

“It’s time for change, that’s the cry in the whole country and that’s the cry in Kashmir,” Dr Basheer Bhatt, a private practitioner in Ganderbal’s Saloora village, told me.

“The Abdullahs have had more than their share of power; don’t be surprised if the outcome of the Lok Sabha polls sets the mood for the Assembly verdict.”

It isn’t easy for Dr Bhatt to turn harsh on the Abdullahs for his family are traditional National Conference loyalists. Ganderbal itself, a ragged rural stretch 20-odd kilometres north of Srinagar, has been the political seat of three generations of Abdullahs, beginning with the Sheikh.

It is part of the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat and is currently represented in the Assembly by Omar Abdullah.

“But ask the people of Ganderbal and it will be clear to you the tide has turned against them, you cannot take people for granted all the time,” Dr Bhatt said. “We even hear Omar is looking at another seat for the Assembly.”

Dr Bhatt may merely be speculating that Omar is running scared — he lost the seat to a local upstart in 2002 but came back in 2008 — but the signs of the ground twisting underfoot aren’t far to seek.

The rival legions of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have been partying on the Abdullahs’ home ground — holding more and bigger meetings, grabbing more talk time on the street, even getting the better of the campaign space.

PDP banners and buntings were unheard of in the crummy Ganderbal town centre; this campaign the PDP’s green came to outscore the NC’s iconic red.

Intimation of the PDP “invasion” has flowed from other old NC bastions in Srinagar — from Kangan in the north, lorded by the Gujjar figurehead Mian Altaf, and Chrar-e-Sharif in the south, where another NC leader, Abdul Rahim Rather, has long held sway.

These are constituencies that gave the elder Abdullah the lead in earlier parliamentary runs. But the PDP’s inroads in both areas could work to neutralise the advantage the NC has held in the past.

A Kashmiri journalist of vintage — he began reporting in the Sheikh era — said he could sense more than mere anti-incumbency in the air.

“The young, especially, are not impressed with dynasties that have been around a while — that’s a fatigue you see across the country with the Gandhis too. They want change; they are seeking a more level relationship with their leaders,” he said.

“If the PDP does well in this and the coming Assembly elections, it will merely be the collateral beneficiary of this yearning for change, for doing away with a family that in the public mind behaves as if it has divine ruling rights. The current political mood is not so much about the PDP gaining ground as it is about sentiment turning averse to the Abdullahs.”

That a relative lightweight like Tariq Karra has shivered Farooq Abdullah’s quest to retain Srinagar probably attests the veteran’s point.

Karra was once part of the NC menagerie and crossed over to the PDP sensing better prospects. He lost the 2008 Assembly elections from Srinagar’s Batmaloo neighbourhood. He isn’t particularly known to possess a following, nor has he progressed in the direction of achieving public stature.

Yet, Karra stands within a shot of felling Kashmir’s best-known politician in his final electoral lap. That won’t be any achievement of Karra’s; it will be what the Abdullahs bring upon themselves.

Srinagar voted on April 30