Team Change

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by Khursheed Wani

On the re-opening of civil secretariat in Srinagar on May 7, following the biennial shifting of durbar, many chambers in the landmark building would be occupied by new bosses. On the last day of April 2018, Governor NN Vohra administered the oath of office and secrecy to eight ministers following the biggest reshuffle in the cabinet in many years. This is probably the last time when Vohra was seen administering the oath to ministers before the end of his decade-long tenure in the embattled state as Delhi’s representative.

The cabinet reshuffle is the latest patchwork on the rough road that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is travelling on for the past two years. The coalition partners demonstrated that despite crises and visible differences over a host of issues, they would not afford to lose grip on power.

The cabinet reshuffle was on cards for many months. The BJP, which reached the echelons of power for the first time in the state, required it more than its partner. The grapevine in Jammu was that the BJP ministers were not assertive as they miserably failed to give the promised flip to development in the region. The cabinet reshuffle threw many surprises.

The deputy chief minister Dr Nirmal Kumar Singh, a former history professor of Jammu University and rightwing ideologue was humiliatingly thrown out. Kavinder Gupta, who was speaker of the assembly, swapped the post with Nirmal Singh. Gupta is more assertive on his RSS background and wears it as a badge of honour. His elevation to the top post is aimed at asserting BJP’s influence more aggressively on the state politics. In his first hasty interaction with the media, he described Kathua rape and murder as a ‘minor issue’ as his supporters broke into laughter in the background.

It is clear that the rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua in the captivity of ideology-driven criminals expedited the process of a cabinet reshuffle. Following global outrage, the BJP was compelled to ask two of its ministers—Chowdhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga to put in their papers. The two ministers had led a rally of Hindu Ekta Manch, a group floated in favour of criminals arrested in this case. The two ministers insisted that they took part in the rally at the initiation of the party leaders. Interestingly, the party leader Sat Pal Sharma and Kathua legislator Rajiv Jasrotia were inducted into the cabinet.

The PDP insiders say that the party was not keen on bringing about any change in their cabinet team following the sudden sacking of former finance minister Haseeb Drabu in March. Drabu was apparently shown exit on his controversial remarks on the historicity of Kashmir issue in an influential conference in Delhi. He immediately fell out of favours of his party boss and remains untraced ever since. He was known to be the link between the BJP’s top brass in Delhi and his own party leadership. After his exit, Mehbooba Mufti says the top brass (of BJP) is just a phone call away and she does not require intermediaries to talk on her behalf.

The PDP’s only requirement was to unburden Altaf Bukhari who was given the finance portfolio after Drabu’s exit in addition to his own portfolios including the vital education department. However, the reshuffle expedited by the resignation of BJP ministers resulted into axing Abdul Haq Khan, an influential politician from Lolab (Kupwara). Khan won the assembly election twice since 2008 and was inducted into late Mufti Sayeed’s cabinet in March 2015. Unlike Bukhari, he did not fall out of favours when Mehbooba Mufti took over in April 2016 and was given important departments. People close to Khan say that he had no inkling of being dropped and the call to him to put in his papers descended like a thunderbolt. Insiders say that Khan’s handling of legal issues like defending the state’s position on Article 35 A, and misreading situation in Kathua rape case, went against him. There are also charges that the rural development department was not effectively used to reach out to the common people.

Khan eventually became a casualty in the aftermath of Kathua incidents. However, Muhammad Ashraf Mir was picked up from oblivion and sworn in as a minister. Last time, he was a junior minister in late Mufti’s council of ministers but was dropped by his daughter. It was said that Mir was among a group of legislators who planned to throw a surprise if Mehbooba continued to resist forming a government with BJP. He made a comeback with a rank overhaul. Mir is one of the five legislators who won from Srinagar district and his electoral victory was significant as he defeated the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah from Sonwar constituency. So much was he overwhelmed by his victory that he took his security officer’s rifle for aerial firing in ecstasy? Muhammad Khalil Bandh has been picked up to give representation to Pulwama in the cabinet after Drabu’s sacking.

Jasrotia was also part of the Hindu Ekta rally and his elevation to the cabinet raised many eyebrows. Analysts say that BJP shrewdly handled the post-Kathua situation. The resignation of two ministers was aimed at offsetting the humiliation that came to the party by taking the side of the alleged perpetrators of the heinous crime. However, by including Sat Sharma, who dispatched the ministers to attend the rally and Jasrotia who was among the organisers, the party communicated to its constituency that it was not budging from its stand. Their inclusion also meant that PDP did not have the last laugh. The perception floated by the PDP leadership that it asserted to see the two ministers packing also lost efficacy. Jasrotia was given the forest portfolio left by Lal Singh. It means that the basic issues with the nomadic population, which apparently led to minor girl’s torment, is unlikely to be resolved. The PDP, on its part, only held the tribal affairs ministry to manage any unforeseen controversial situation.

And, with the reshuffle, the BJP is aiming at rebounding with vigour and assertion. The party axed Nirmal Singh, Bali Bhagat and Priya Sethi, apparently on the basis of their performance. The new team seems to have been picked up after a thorough thought process. The news ministers are ideologically stronger and represent strategically important areas for the BJP.

For example, Sunil Kumar Sharma, who graduated to cabinet rank, represents Kishtwar with a sizeable Muslim population. He is known for his proximity with BJP’s central leadership. The police have named him in an FIR (133 of 2008) U/S 7/27 Arms Act, 302, 436, 188,435,336,149,153 RPC that pertains to the communal clashes in 2008.

Likewise, Shakti Raj Parihar who was sworn in as Minister of State represents Muslim majority Doda constituency. He cruised through with effective social engineering and dividing Muslim vote between Abdul Majid Wani of Congress and NC’s Khalid Najeeb Suharwardy. Though he has come from Inderwal, he has a long association with Doda through his RSS network.

Devinder Singh Manyal (BJP) represents SC reserved Samba constituency. His inclusion as health minister is aimed at keeping SC flock with the BJP managing other influential groups like NC and Congress in the area.

The reshuffle gave Mehbooba the highest permissible strength of 25 members in the council of ministers. However, the entire state was not represented and many among the state’s 22 districts did not find a berth at all. From the Valley, Shopian, Kulgam and Ganderbal have no representation in the cabinet. Bandipora’s case is curious. If Naeem Akhtar is taken as a resident of Bandipora, the district is being represented even as Akhtar is a member of legislative council.

In Jammu province, the districts of Ramban and Udhampur have been left without any representative in the council of ministers. From Ladakh, Chering Dorjey holds an independent charge as minister of state. He is a member of the legislative council from Leh. The Kargil district is also without any representation in the council of ministers though PDP gave legislative council chairman’s post to Haji Inayat Ali, an equivalent of a cabinet minister’s rank.

On the Kashmir ground, the cabinet reshuffle passed as a non-event. While the ministers were taking the oath, a fierce gun-battle was underway in Drubgam (Pulwama) that resulted in the death of prominent Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Sameer Tiger and his associate. Another youngster was killed around the encounter site as hundreds of people tried to help the holed up militants escape. Most of the colleges and schools in the area were closed down and internet services were snapped. Three days after the Drabgam incident, another teenager was killed in cold-blood in Turkwangam (Shopian) after a group of militants escaped an army cordon. Four residential houses were set ablaze by the government forces. These incidents, and not the cabinet rejig, are the talking point in Kashmir. Ironically, the people’s concerns about their safety are not paid heed to.

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