When he joined the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) on 30 June, it was a development that was long-awaited. Still, when noted economist and former J&K Bank chairman Haseeb Drabu did take the plunge, it was not just another famous personality joining mainstream politics. He is already billed to take over as the next finance minister of Jammu & Kashmir, should the PDP win the forthcoming Assembly election, but that is not what is conspicuous about his entry. His ideas are.
Ever since his return to the state after a stint with Essar Group as its economic adviser, Drabu, through his write-ups and speeches, has courted controversy by challenging the set codes of the state’s politics and calling for re-imagining and rethinking the methods advocated by the separatist groups for the resolution of the Kashmir issue.
At a seminar in Kashmir University, and it was before he joined the PDP, Drabu argued for a move away from hartals and boycotts, a holy grail of separatist struggle for the past quarter of a century. The day after, a barrage of criticism was directed at him, mostly on social media.
“In ugly occupation, Drabu looks for a beautiful resistance,” read one Facebook post, echoing the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. The Hurriyat Conference was prompt to seek a substitute method of protest. “If hartals and boycotts will not do, let Drabu sahib give us the alternative,” a Hurriyat leader said.
And a month later, when Drabu became a PDP member, J&K Liberation Front (JKLF) supremo Yasin Malik accused him of betrayal. He said Drabu was “once a JKLF worker and had offered to flesh out the militant outfit’s economic document for an independent Kashmir”. Malik’s statement identified a long list of people who, he alleged, had used separatist resistance in Kashmir to build their professional and political careers.
Drabu didn’t react to Malik’s outburst. But in his joining letter to PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, the former banker called for “a new ideological consensus that lies somewhere between the invasiveness of the integrationists and the imperviousness of the separatists”. He was blunt about the toll that this binary had taken on the Valley.
“Between the two, what we have is a Kashmir where young boys get wrapped in coffins of symbols; a Kashmir where a tragic death gives life to vendors of alien ideologies and peddlers of surreal solutions; and a Kashmir that paralyses itself in the process of seeking to immobilise the other,” Drabu wrote.
Armed with a doctorate in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Drabu started his career as an officer on special duty in the Planning Commission in 1990. He worked with the prime minister’s Economic Advisory Council and was also part of the Tenth Finance Commission. He worked closely with YV Reddy and Bimal Jalan, both of whom went on to head the Reserve Bank of India. Subsequently, he joined Business Standard as its national editor.
In the 2002 Assembly election, when the PDP — a party formed by former Union minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed — emerged as the surprise winner and formed the first genuinely democratically elected government without the National Conference, Drabu returned as its economic adviser and formulated the first zero-deficit Budget of the state.
In 2005, he took over as chairman of the J&K Bank and occupied the post until 2010. On 19 August that year, through the tumult of the prevailing Azadi unrest, the state government — a majority shareholder in the bank — issued orders for his immediate replacement. No reason was offered for this decision.
People said Drabu was replaced because of his strained relations with Finance Minister Abdur Rahim Rather. Some speculated that he was removed because he had defied the government directive not to open the bank on days when there were breaks in the separatists-issued weeklong hartal calendars.
Drabu tendered his resignation and joined the Essar Group. And it is from whence he returned to politics early this year and jumped smack into the middle of the Valley’s polarised discourses: sifting indelicately through the freighted debates and stepping on the political trip wires that whipped up controversy and bitter responses from the separatists who accused him of opportunism and betrayal.
But Drabu did not only alienate separatists, he also tore through what he sees as the deceit and treachery of the mainstream political parties. And along the way, he defined the contours of a new politics for the state — with dire prognostications and warnings if the situation continues unchanged — revealing in the process his own politics, controversial and radical in its own right. He called on separatists to evolve and work to “heighten the consciousness about ethnicity and ethno-nationalism” in Kashmir.
He had a similar counsel for the mainstream: “Has even a small fraction of the time and energy that has been spent on defending Article 370 been spent on reigniting Kashmiri nationalism?”
He alarmed the people about the “political strategy and an electoral re-engineering” to turn the state’s demographic majority (ethnic Kashmiris) into a political minority.
And in a state where participating in mainstream politics is considered taboo and generally interpreted by a large section of society as a betrayal of the Kashmir cause, he went ahead to cast his vote in the recent General Election, for the first time ever, and defended it publicly as an exercise geared to evacuate the act of its long associated sense of guilt.
Casting his ballot was an emotional act of retribution, he wrote in an article in a regional daily. “I voted in anger and angst. I voted with disgust and disdain,” he added. “I voted out of aversion and abhorrence. Mine was a symbolic vote to protest against the repeated affronts to my sensibilities and sensitivities as a Kashmiri nationalist.”
He wrote about the separatist boycott of polls defeating the very purpose it was projected to achieve. “Beyond theory and symbolism, electoral boycott as an instrument of resistance has been consumed and co-opted by the mainstream political process,” Drabu explained in one of his columns. “Indeed, boycotts have now become yet another form of the manipulation of electoral outcomes.”
In the Assembly election scheduled for October-November, Drabu will be the PDP candidate from Rajpora constituency in south Kashmir. The party swept the recent General Election in the Valley, winning all the three seats it fought, and is touted to do well in the Assembly polls. Having set off waves that are rippling through conversations in the Valley, Drabu has already positioned himself as one of its key players, unsettling lingering narratives and trying to forge a new political ethic and discourse in a place where the one thing politicians of all shades have struggled with most and for long is their credibility.
But Drabu is ready for the challenge. His goal is to re-infuse the lost soul and conscience into Kashmir’s murky politics.
“For inspiring the new generation into action, this new-age political process has to culminate in one value: integrity. This must be all pervasive; personal, moral and ideological integrity,” Drabu wrote in his letter to PDP president Mehbooba Mufti. “It is in this context and, with this agenda, which I want to leave the perch of punditry and slug it out in the noise and chaos of politics.”