‘Electoral politics has become an obstacle to the resolution of the issue’

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IAS 2009 topper Dr Shah Faesal tells Masood Hussain hours after quitting the coveted service

IAS topper Dr Shah Faesal. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): A student who became a doctor in trying circumstances, then topped IAS is finally quitting the service. What do you want to do actually?

DR SHAH FAESAL (SF): My IAS was about joining public service as I want to do something for the people. The thing that defines the purpose of my life is where I can see possibly of being used in the best manner. When I joined medical school it felt like this is the place where I want to be. After getting in the field, I saw issues and challenges and realised that this is not the place where I wanted to be. So I decided to be at the policy level. I went to IAS where I saw the intersection of politics and civil services.

In administration, I realised that maybe I am being very useful, but there are some larger issues, very exciting and very challenging. Then I felt like I am performing well but maybe my potential is not being used to its fullest, so why not look at those challenges. Many of those challenges are political, some are social, and then within the constraints of civil services conduct rules, it was very difficult for me to respond to those challenges. It was not possible for me to speak on issues, or at times, do something. But the politics give you the space to speak on issues as well as do something. I realised maybe this is the time to come out of these constraints.

KL: How has your family taken this shock?

SF: It has been building up for the last few years as there has been a gradual change of heart for me. It was essentially very hard for me.

As Director of School Education, it was for the first time I realised that it may not be enough for a civil servant to do what he does as there are other factors which determine his performance. Education was a subject very close to my heart, but as we operate in a conflict zone so the outcome was not necessarily all in my hands. We had a confrontation with the school teachers union and then a lot of problems happened and all the initiated reforms got stalled. All the politicians, the union people and judiciary jumped in and messed it up. I realised it is not easy to do reforms in this setting unless you have politicians on our side or unless you have a larger consensus which is so difficult to achieve. I was not disillusioned but I realised that something more needs to be done.

In Power Development Corporation I again realised that there are larger policy issues which are being ignored. I really wanted to do something but I was unable to do because the policy is in transitions, and there is a lack of understanding at the top levels.

I was in conversation with my family that I have been feeling that I need to move on, and at the same time, there were a lot of other things happenings like the rise of right-wing stuff in mainland India where we saw the issues about freedom of speech, lot of rape cases, the child rapes, violence perpetrated against the Muslims, lynching, cow vigilantisms and the attacks on the special identity of the state. On this, it was always challenging for me to keep quiet. I realised that this is the time to actually speak about it, and I think for past six months my family was completely aware that sooner or later I am going to give it up.

KL: If Kashmir’s most competent officer is not able to fight for the issues within the system, who will bell the cat now?

SF: In civil services, things I wanted to do I was successful in doing that. I repeat, it is not the sense of disillusionment or dejection which has taken me away from civil services.

We did some amazing things in school education and in the power sector as well. I think as you grow in civil services you realise there is a sense of challenge, that lot more can be possibly done and somehow the system is not yielding. That desire to do more takes you out of civil services not that something is not happening or working out there. I don’t say politics has all the solutions but it has space. We have abandoned that space, and we don’t look up to that space for the solutions. Yes, space is not providing us with the solutions because they are not right people out there.

KL: One intellectual Dr Haseeb Drabu has left politics and a new one is joining politics. Is politics worth an intellectual now?

DSF: Haseeb Drabu Sahab has been an inspiration for me. We have looked up to him, have read whatever he used to write, and he has been part of our upbringing. When he joined politics obviously, of course, he got in a lot of freshness into the political discourse and now he left it. There are ups and downs. But I won’t say he has quit politics. I am sure he is around and he will be there again.

What I need to understand is when I am in politics we have to make sure we don’t compromise on the foundations on which the politics in Kashmir works. If I join politics tomorrow, I believe there are certain foundational, core issues on which you cannot compromise. That core issue is the idea of identity, the public sentiment, the aspirations Kashmiris have, and if we somehow try to undermine that sentiment and try to do our politics while undermining or overlooking that sentiment then that politics is definitely going to fail us.

It is a learning experience for youngsters like me. When the North pole-South pole coalition happened, people saw Haseeb Drabu as an intellectual, an arbitrator, an architect of that coalition which he necessarily was not. He was just doing his job and was working for his boss who appointed him to do certain things but that made us realise that even if an intellectual, a highly respected personality like him, if he can forget the fundamentals which we were talking about, the core things of the Kashmiri politics then even he will be neutralised in due course of time.

I believe as long as I stick to those fundamentals of Kashmiri politics, I take care of the aspirations, governance, I am sure there will be absolutely no scope for getting neutralised and dejected.

KL: You have spent almost a decade in governance, is it so choking for any kind of forward movement, the deliverance of development and better planning?

SF: We are working in a conflict zone, and the delivering capacity of the institutions will be determined by the type of security environment we have. Things do happen but the public expectation is huge, and there is a chance that the system can deliver more. In conflict zones, the political class gets disempowered and the bureaucracies become more powerful. In our case as the bureaucrats are the representatives of the Central government, so the central government led bureaucracy has obviously an upper hand in the decision-making process and they decide what happens within the state and those decisions and that vision are not necessarily in sync with the vision of the indigenous political class. There is a very strange agency relation principle which would ideally have the politician, the elected representative as the masters and the bureaucrat as the agent but we have a reversal of the relationship due to which the bureaucracy gets to declare the policy and the politicians have to follow the suite. I believe that if we are somehow able to get a little bit of assertion in the political class with respect to the implementation of the policy, which is possible, I think the kind of cynicism which we see vis-à-vis the governance, can change.

KL: In Kashmir politics, the dominant narrative is the democracy. As you are heading to join politics, the democracy has changed its character – from being the process of participation to now a process of manipulation?

SF: Democracy has always been a subject of intense debate in Kashmir. In electoral democracy, there are only two possibilities. An absolute boycott when nobody votes and the electoral mainstream gets completely wiped out and we are left with only separatist politics. Then the political discussion revolves only between Delhi and the separatist politics, and it is the only politics of aspirations and there is nobody else.

But we are in a situation where in spite of the boycott, we have tremendous polling happening. After a million-march, you have 70 per cent polling and the people, who emerge out of this kind of electoral politics do not claim to be representing the sentiments because they actually don’t. The sentiment is actually represented by somebody else.

In such a situation, electoral politics has actually become an obstacle to the resolution of the issue because they are cutting both ways: one, they are not representing the aspirations of people due to which the issue remains unaddressed, second, Delhi gets an opportunity to present these elected politicians as a counterforce to separatist politics in the manner that State is losing on both ends.

My belief is if we bring in somehow a little bit of honesty into the political discourse, and our elected politician can stand up and say people have given us vote, and that vote has been given to us for a certain reason, we are not going to misrepresent our people. Governance will as well be very important for them; corruption, the problem of transparency, accountability in public institutions which we have seen very recently. I think if those two things can somehow be bridged in by bringing fresh people, fresh ideas, new people, obviously youngsters holding their elected representatives accountable, I think some change is definitely going to be possible. If that does not happen then electoral politics can always remain an obstacle, not to just resolution but to providing good governance as well.

KL: Kashmir’s politics is divided on an ideological basis so how will you be in politics and balancing both the factors?

SF: Where is politics not divided into ideological factors? Our state has polarisation, maybe more than any other place but how can we bring these politics to a level where it can provide solutions? The problem is what is the choice with us? This politics is going to stay there. If your boycott for elections was successful then this politics wouldn’t exist. It has withstood boycott calls. I am not saying the boycott is bad. I wish people make a choice between boycott or voting. When it is there so you somehow need to do something about it.

I am not for abandoning this political space. I want youngsters to come in and change, not only change but to fundamentally re-imagine this politics, then be honest with the people. They have given votes to us for something. Let us not lie to Delhi. Let us not be Delhi’s representatives in Kashmir. Let us be Kashmir’s representatives in Delhi.

KL: You are talking about the identity of Kashmir at a time when the electoral politics is dividing the Kashmir mandate. So how can a fractured mandate help strengthen Kashmir identity?

SF: The trouble here is how the political mandate has shaped up over a period of last few years. There are too many splinter groups, too many new parties, too many chief ministers arising in Kashmir. There is too much political ambition arising around political offices in Kashmir, and you don’t have similar kind of unnecessary, unreasonable ambitions in Jammu and Ladakh. I don’t believe in a Kashmir dominated politics but in Kashmir, you are reaching a place where everybody is claiming to be a Chief Minister. The need of the hour is that we have to have consolidation of the mandate, and this time, we need a government which has a fair mandate from all the three regions and the government should possibly bridge the fault lines between these regions. Otherwise, for Kashmir, it is going to be a sense of extreme disempowerment in coming years as we see nobody getting four to five seats and everybody wants to become a Chief Minister of his own and have his share in the pie. Unless Kashmir consolidates the mandate and these small groups unite, only then certain solutions can come. Otherwise the more we divide the more problematic this politics is going to be.

KL: Will you be the go-between to consolidate the Kashmir mandate?

SF: Honestly speaking, a lot of people are telling me that we need to start a new party. But I do not want to start one more independent party because there are already too many. Everybody is representing just one constituency so I wish I could actually bring together the forces together who stand for similar causes, for safeguarding the special identity of the state, for communal harmony between the communities, who stand for bringing together the three regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, and converging their aspirations. I wish we have some sort of convergence, some sort of agreement in the state in the coming elections.

KL: On your table must be a bucket of choices – where to go? But what is the net difference between the different Kashmir parties?

SF: Firstly, the choice for me is to decide between a regional and a national party. If I join a national party, they won’t give me a little bit of flexibility to talk about Kashmir which I really want to do. In a regional party, however, I have a choice to choose the party which has similar concerns like I have for the minorities in the rest of the country, which makes an express rejection of the right-wing Hindutva politics that has become a source of all evils in our state and a party which can also possibly give us a promise that there will be a consolidation of the mandate, which will possibly deliver in coming years.

(Saima Bhat processed the interview)

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