No election in Kashmir is complete without Farooq Abdullah. His name is enough because it resonates in the country and abroad with Kashmir, next only to his late father Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, hailed as “Sher-e-Kashmir.”
At 83, Farooq is contesting elections yet again, sitting pretty like a comeback kid and setting his own standards of contest. He began electoral politics in 1980 when he, as son of Sheikh Abdullah, was elected to the Lok Sabha unopposed and the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called him to Jammu to campaign for other candidates, including that of the Congress.
“Times have changed,” observes Farooq while talking to The Tribune, perhaps reflecting on the transformation in the situation from 1980s till date — a gap of 40 years and 30 of high turbulence and violence. Farooq is leaving no stone unturned, literally. He is out in the morning to campaign in different places. Life-size hoardings with his tall frame and a smiling face overlook bystanders, proclaiming: “We represent aspirations of the people.”
Once bitten twice shy, his aides say though the clear winner (he is contesting the Srinagar seat), Farooq has not given up caution, having lost the 2014 polls to Tariq Hamid Karra of the PDP. He won the seat in a byelection in April 2017 after Karra resigned to protest against the spate of killings in Kashmir during the PDP-BJP rule. At that time, a sobriquet was invented for him — Mr 4 per cent — the votes polled by him in the byelection marred by violence, resulting in the death of nine persons.
Farooq’s political career started almost immediately after his father returned to power in 1975 following an accord with Indira Gandhi. His campaigning skills were tested in the 1977 Assembly elections when his party National Conference won a two-third majority – the first election that NC contested after disbanding the Plebiscite Front of 22 years. By no means an easy task, he made it so for his father and the party and emerged as a force to reckon with.
His elevation as party president and then induction into the Cabinet days before Sheikh Abdullah’s death, made him the heir apparent. This was deeply resented by his brother-in-law. He became CM on April 8, 1982 , and his first call to fellow Kashmiris was to “control your emotions and don’t do anything that could damage the image of Kashmir and that of Sher-e-Kashmir. We are all one”, the message that he keeps repeating even today when his party ideology and cadre are under attack from various quarters.
Farooq’s profile is not just about winning the polls. He reversed the course of violence – though a large number of critics dispute that – by time and again telling the people in J&K that their fate is linked with that of India. And, despite his changing political dictums, Farooq stands tallest in Kashmir’s electoral politics. All elections since 1977 have borne the stamp of his humour and anger, but not without political messaging.
He also carries the burden of the 1987 Assembly polls, seen as the source of militancy. But this is only a partial view — the fault lies with the unwritten November 1986 Rajiv-Farooq accord share to Congress.