Cracked House

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From the alliance architect in 2014 to the sacked minister, three years later, Haseeb Drabu’s status downgrade tells a longer story about the mess in Kashmir’s power politics, reports Masood Hussain

The scene is completely changed. If you happen to visit the government building that once housed Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the PDP founder, at New Plot in Jammu’s Ved Mandir, there is a strong possibility about you being politely asked to introduce yourself. The sleuths in plainclothes may even record the number of the car, you move in, and your residence, if you do not mind. The reason: Dr Haseeb Drabu, its current incumbent, till last week, was state’s finance minister and the architect of its alliance with BJP. Now sacked from the government, the economist lives in a state of utmost surveillance. The eyes that were deployed to see what happened around the villa are now keen to see what happens inside.

Nothing abnormal in situations as the one Jammu and Kashmir witnessed last week, the only difference the “change” conveys is how a person, considered “the most important” till yesterday, is one of the “suspects” for the political set up. The change in status has enforced a new change in the trickle of visitors to this house. Unlike last week, when it was important for all the “biggies” in business and politics to ensure a drive into the house, the visitors are quite a few: staff, some officers, old friends, a few voters and some grateful citizens who have finally found an opportunity to say some good words to the man for the “good things” he has done.

From the ruling party that sacked him, there have been two visitors, so far. They had come to inquire about the “welfare” of the man, inmates said. “It was just a brief visit,” they said.

Drabu has been ruling PDP founder Mufti Sayeed’s “discovery” and the economist has been the author of party’s DNA. Last week when he was accused of denting the party image by saying things in contradiction of party’s core ideology, Drabu reacted: “As for my understanding of the political ideology of PDP, it is based on my drafting of various election manifestoes, the aspirational agenda, and the all-important Self Rule document, which Mufti Sahib involved me in.”

His speech at Kashmir: The Way Forward, an event that PHD Chamber of Commerce hosted in Delhi for potential investors and diplomats, is considered to be fundamental in triggering a storm that eventually led to his sacking. The Mushtaq Chaya event was initially supposed to be attended by Syed Altaf Bukhari but later an invitation was extended to Drabu. Seeing the significance of the participants, Chief Minister was suggested to speak but for some reason, she could not. But it was not participation but the speech that eventually proved game-changing.

“It can’t be just a political issue,” Drabu said in his keynote address. “Don’t see J&K as a conflict state and as a political issue, its a society, which has social issues right now. We are trying to find our own space. And we are going through a process, which many other countries are going through. It’s not like we are the only ones. It’s not a political issue as far as I can see. I think we have been barking up the wrong tree talking about for the last 50, 70 years talking about the politics of it, the political situation, how it has never been improved. I think we also seriously need to correct in terms of how it’s a society in search for itself.”

For the first time, Kashmir witnessed a mass reaction to the assertions of the minister. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and YasinMalik apart, everybody from Zafar Iqbal Manhas to Hakim Yasin reacted. Alerted by aides to issue a correction, the minister waited till his party wanted him to retract. Well before he could, show cause notice was issued. Next morning no call was returned till the news broke of his culling in the cabinet. On Monday, Chief Minister retained the finance portfolio and a day later it was given to Syed Altaf Bukhari, the education minister, who earlier passed through the same test, slightly less acidic, and bounced back to the cabinet.

Were his assertions the key reason for Drabu’s axing? Officially the party says yes. But ask individuals; they all have their own reasons to defend the axing.

The biggest crisis that Drabu faced was the packaging he had evolved with especially after 2014 elections. The man who stitched the alliance with right-wing BJP for his political masters was seen as the master of the alliance. This perception helped him grow as the only surviving Frankenstein, on the pattern of the young scientist who created a grotesque but sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment in the 1818 novel, the Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Since the man has not taken his personal PR seriously, unlike his counterparts, because of his media background, kept his side of the story close to his chest and it gradually landed him into a volcano.

Everybody talks of the “hurt” they received in their interactions with Drabu. “Deata Tha, Badda Ragda Maar Kay,” one officer said, talking about how it was really difficult to get the funds from the minister. He admitted that the ‘system builder’ was a harsh processor for the sake of the credibility of the processes and was evolving systems to make corruption difficult.

The incumbent government seemingly had kept a separate tray for collecting all the negatives that Drabu’s alleged arrogance, attitude, knowledge, hate, lose talk, and strong likes and dislikes had created. With his “compromised speech” in Delhi, the tray spilt over and the “intruder into politics” was bulldozed.

“He is talking of audit and rationality in resources and funds,” one young man from the party said. “Why not audit in Shopian first where six people were killed last week?”

But that is how politics is transacted in evolving societies: People’s importance is directly proportional to the power they enjoy. Had knowledge been the power as written on the walls of the rundown state-run schools, learned men would have got a bit of respect.

There were only three voices against the chopping and only one of them was from PDP. First, it was Sajjad Lone’s tweet. Then, it was Javed Beig, the nephew of Muzaffar Hussain Beig, one of PDPs founders, who incidentally faced the same crisis at one point in time. “I listened to Drabu’s speech, and it is apparent that he was trying to make some other point. Maybe he did not say in a manner he did not wish to say but the party should at least have given him a week’s time to respond and if he would have been adamant, then remove him,” Javed Beig was quoted saying. “Tomorrow as a human being, I too can err but should the party remove me despite my complete dedication to being with the party and the party president until the end of my life.”

But to every Beig in PDP, there are twenty non-Beigs’ still frothing.

The other voice came from the NC and that is just for the sake of politics. “Simply sacking the architect of the BJP-PDP alliance & co-author of the agenda of the alliance will not redeem the PDP for the sins of the last 3 years,” NC president Omar Abdullah tweeted. Then be broke the news about the rollback of reforms. “The first decision of the new Finance Minister is to reverse a reform his Govt had bragged about. Is there more to Haseeb’s dismissal than just his speech?”

The Pays and Accounts Office (PAO) rollback was the first indicator of the crisis that the PDP government threw in public after the unceremonious ouster. This coincided with the contractors flying to Jammu with floral buckets to the new incumbent in the finance ministry. PAO, however, has been kept in abeyance till the conclusion of the current fiscal but the naysayers in the government indicate the abeyance, though illegal, may become a sort of permanency.

The Operation Oust Drabu might have been interesting but its finer details will come in bits and pieces as was the case with earlier political chopping in history: Mirza Afzal Beig, Muzaffar Hussain Beig and few other political coups. There are indications that stake-holding in his ouster was beyond the state geography that was on display last time he was divested of Culture portfolio.

But the “dark” analysts in Jammu say the coup was vital for the party leader, the first lady ruler of Kashmir in last 1000 years, to reiterate that she is in control and she holds the absolute authority. The precedence was set already. The founder sent Ghulam Hassan Mir home at a time when he was literally being seen as No 2. Later, Beig was recalled as Deputy Chief Minister and asked to submit his resignations unconditionally. He had his honours restored later.

“Last time when Syed Altaf Bukhari was dropped, the party leaders responded in anger, some even feared the party will collapse but she remained adamant insisting that ‘let it be’ but I will do it,” one insider said. “This time again, she conveyed her courage that she can do it with anybody, anytime. She is her father’s daughter.” Her dislike was the main factor for the so-called king-slayer, Tariq Hameed Karra to join Congress and campaign for the victory of Dr Farooq Abdullah, the man whom he had defeated in 2014.

According to these analysts, the Drabu chopping has helped her reinforce the writ on the party and convey that there are not many power centres. This might suit the new party structure after Tasaduq’s entry. Interestingly, the young Mufti is expected to operate from the home where his father lived as an opposition leader till he was re-elected in 2014.

However, there are feeble tensions that sacking Drabu will create a bad precedence and may work against the idea of attracting more well-read people into the fold.

“For an intellectual, I have always believed, proximity to power is a dangerous existence,” Dr Sidiq Wahid, one of Drabu’s old friends wrote him in an open letter on the Facebook. “The combination can be a death-knell in our J&K State, which is filled with snollygosters (“a person who aspires to office regardless of party, platform or principles”).”

Initially, in the civil secretariat, people talked in hushed tones about the development. The only exception were the leaders of the employee’s trade union that publicly appreciated his contributions.

It was a quick clean-up by his staff, now shifted away, to pave way for his successor’s review meeting with the J&K Bank management. A visit by Estate Officers had earlier hinted the Tourism Minister may operate from the office because of its proximity to the offices of Chief Minister and her Deputy.

But APO is too small to describe the so-called Drabunomics. People understanding the political economy and the public finance systems will understand the import of interventions that started with his entry into the state as an economic adviser way back in 2003. The changes were retained by the NC-Congress regime when it took over in 2008. For the first time in 2003, the systemic upgrade is facing a mild-counter.

Unlike professional interventions, his political decision-making – for and on behalf of his political leadership – might be disagreed and debated with but their significance cannot be wished away. That is perhaps why some people think that the man who loves his computer more than his constituency should not be decided on basis of the basic political norms that exist in contested democracies like Jammu and Kashmir. This is despite the fact that he is accused of raising additional resources outside the public kitty for Rajpora.

“He should be seen as a solution giver,” one of his erstwhile aides said. “Go to him with a problem, seek a solution and go and implement it. For him, solution finding is more satisfying than implementing it.”

As a blessing in disguise, Drabu has automatically fallen down as the hinge of the alliance’s door. This job has finally been taken over by the president herself. She already had a detailed meeting with the Prime Minister during her last visit to Delhi. She has started talking about the critical issues that face the coalition.

If insiders in the government are to be believed then the Chief Minister has already asked the BJP that it can not be possible to work with the people who are converting a heinous crime of kidnapping, raping and murdering a minor in a Kathua temple. That is the possibility why there are strong rumours that some of the BJP ministers may face a change.

In the coming days, there is going to be an emphasis on talks between Delhi and Srinagar even though BJP ruled centre is strongly unwilling to resume bilateral talks with Pakistan. So far contentious issues like Article 35(A) are kept in a state of dormancy but if BJP loses a few more seats, Srinagar’s vulnerability would improve both in Supreme Court and in Kathua.

But how is the man taking all this? A friend has suggested him to write a quick essay on “the art of getting sacked”. The copy, he suggested him, will get viral because “you are perhaps the first person who was sacked by Kashmir’s two main political parties including the one that you worked for, all these years”. Interestingly, in Kashmir’s post-partition history, he negotiated two financial packages: Rs 44,000 crore with Dr Manmohan Singh and Rs 80,000 crore with Narendra Modi, besides, getting the only multi-lateral project from ADB to ERA.

Last time in 2010, as Chairman of J&K Bank, Drabu was given a few hours to submit his resignation, barely a few months after he had volunteered to do so, apparently without a reason. He had to shift his belongings to a friend’s home and take a long flight to Mumbai, his second home where he stayed till early 2014. He did return to an elevated position. This time, however, he was not given time to even resigning.

It is the humiliation part that is being seen as more embarrassing. “I was just a good editor whom Mufti Mohammad Sayeed picked and groomed. He has been my only mentor in politics,” Drabu said. “I did to the best of my capacity whatever assignments I was given. Including or excluding a minister is the sole right of the Chief Minister. I only have the problem in the manner it was done. That is all.”

Still trying to get into the new routine, he has already furnished his home at Sidhra and will be shifting there soon. In Srinagar, however, he may have to launch a lookout for a house on rent. In between, he cooks his own food and loves it.

But what next? “When was the last time, I thought about tomorrow,” he asked. “Do you know anything about tomorrow?”

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