The ex-banker whose ‘economist’ cult was created at the behest of media blitz, would always vouch for a fiscal over political autonomy for Kashmir, before being ousted for reducing it to a ‘social problem’. The unceremonious sacking of the man whose brushes with the Azadi camp and subsequent bear-hug with the right-wing BJP highlights the dichotomy of his post-truth politics.
Months before floods would hit the valley, a political storm of sorts had taken place in Kashmir in 2014 when the Peoples Democratic Party declared its candidates for the J&K Assembly elections. Some new names in the list were dismissed as “turncoats” by the resistance camp. That they had flirted with the Azadi camp, and used the peoples’ platform as their launching pad before embracing the unionist camp, became Hurriyat’s main retort.
One of them was an ex-banker — unceremoniously ousted by the Omar Abdullah government as the JK Bank chairman at the peak of the 2010 uprising: Haseeb Drabu.
Years later when he was once again ousted unceremoniously, this time as J&K’s finance minister, the man who co-authored the Agenda for Alliance, mistakenly, or deliberately confused with Agenda of Alliance, apparently came full circle.
Before and between his twin ousters, stands the media rise of the man on Kashmir’s political scene — presented and projected as a public intellectual whose economic acumen was an antidote to the Kashmir situation. But the silent simmering built-up against his “outlandish” ways — was even turning off some of his colleagues.
Baptised in late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s old school of dissent management, Drabu’s formal political debut in 2014 started with a bear-hug with his party colleague Muzaffar Hussain Baig, who congratulated him in his party fold: “Welcome to India!”
Baig’s brief remark was perhaps the pointer of the larger transition, which Drabu—a onetime vocal opponent of statecraft and strong votary of Kashmir Conflict—had passed through.
As he came in as an “outsider” and a mascot of Change campaign in Rajpora to woo voters at the fag-end of 2014, he was dismissed by his eight contesting candidates as an “English-speaking progeny of a Zaildar family (feudal), who finds it deprecating to handshake and hug the constituency people”.
Mindful of the campaign offensive, Drabu would go on to say in his election rally that his opponents’ rant “has helped people relive the days of Aziz Mir, my benign great-grand father”.
But far from this poll talk, Drabu would be seen as the PDP’s best bet, as the party activists—then frequenting Fairview to seek their musing patron’s blessings—would later say. To promote Drabu, Mufti Sr—known for his calculative political moves—had to even sideline his two-time loyal legislator from Rajpora, Syed Bashir.
“Then rumour had it that Drabu would often grumble during his private conversations: ‘how bad do these villagers stink!’ ” says a PDP activist from Rajpora. As the word spread to Srinagar, Drabu became a scornful subject of a raging gossip and would be trolled for his newfound identity, now coming in way of his roots. In Rajpora, however, he kept reminding people how he was ousted from J&K Bank Chairmanship “for siding with people amid the turmoil”.
But once the fractured verdict came out, Drabu became his political mentor’s alliance broker with the party they bashed and sought votes against during the election campaign. It was the go-getting project in the hands of the erstwhile banker who had previously stitched the party election manifestos together to float the Self Rule document—PDP’s political bible and a parallel document to National Conference’s Autonomy.
After two months passed in political suspense—during which, even the idea of the Grand Alliance was floated to keep BJP at bay, Drabu sat over 20 times with BJP’s Kashmir pointman Ram Madhav in a bid to melt the two polar ideologues and mould them into a ‘smart’ accord.
In Srinagar, as Madhav-Drabu parleys became a much-talked about political affair, the PDP rank and file would bat for Drabu’s wisdom to bring something “extraordinary” on the platter. This blitz, says a political analyst, was happening at the behest of PDP’s immaculate media management skills.
“Even as the party was about to embrace the Sangh outfit, not much political storm was taking place in an otherwise bombarding media circles of Srinagar,” the analyst says, as we sit to talk away from the cacophonous Press Colony in his small office tucked in a Dalgate hotel.
Following some quick cigarette drags, the analyst—often chided for his ability to call a spade a spade—says, “All this pointed out to a fact that the entire game was then revolving around Drabu—and therefore, there was no question that Mufti and his party would have afforded bad press at that time.”
By then Drabu had spent sleepless nights negotiating with Madhav. And once the ice broke, the PDP was quick to term the otherwise “unholy alliance” as “historic”, which, according to them ‘satisfies the aspiration of both the parties to govern J&K’, based on the Agenda for Alliance, co-authored by Drabu.
Even his mentor—maintaining his vintage hush throughout the two-month long hectic parleys—finally broke his silence: “It’s a comprehensive document, which contains (a) political agenda.”
Drabu said that the Agenda for Alliance in the form of Common Minimum Programme advocates a dialogue to build a broad based consensus on resolution of “all outstanding issues of J&K”, also terming the “draconian” Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) “a process rather than an event”.
With time, however, as the controversial events unfolded in the alliance, PDP’s stand on AFSPA got diluted, whereas the BJP initially took a complete U-turn on Article 370—before playing a dubious role on the judicial assault on the State Subject Law, Article 35A, that ensure that no outsiders can settle in Kashmir.
As finance minister, Drabu’s changed guards on the controversial issues of Demonetisation and GST earned him a scathing attack from his admirers and adversaries alike. “Not only the GST law, but the minister also facilitated the applicability of SARFAESI and Statistical Acts … He played a dirty game by divesting us of whatever fiscal powers were left out under Article 370, in his dream to attain greener pastures,” says Jammu and Kashmir Coordination Committee (JKCC). History, the amalgam says, will remember Drabu as a “collaborator” who eroded J&K’s fiscal autonomy.
But like always, he maintained a calculative silence—dismissed as his “soaring arrogance” by some of his party men.
“Just because late Mufti Sahab would treat him as his taskmaster, he mistook himself as the party’s lock, stock and barrel,” says a senior PDP leader.
“Now after being shunted out for his casual remarks, he must have finally learned his place. The party needs doers than the so-called intellectuals to run the affairs.”
Although this political bickering is nothing new in the power games, in the case of Drabu it talks about the larger resentment.
“Don’t see J&K as a conflict state and a political issue, it is a society which has social issues right now,” it was this reported remark at an event themed ‘Kashmir: the way forward’ in New Delhi on March 9 that cost Drabu his ministry. Although he tried to set the records straight saying that “cub reporter” reported “bits and pieces, not the entire speech”, by then, his second unceremonious sacking was ordered. “It is Deja vu!” he would later quip.
The ouster of the alliance architect did rattle the BJP camp and apparently threatened the alliance—momentarily—before a quick meeting in the BJP camp on Delhi’s direction made it certain that “Drabu’s ouster is PDP’s internal matter”.
Even as the alliance lost its designer, the uproar created by his remarks continued, forcing the JKLF chief Yasin Malik to render and lay bare his roots, all over again.
After his M&D Phil from JNU in Economics and stints with financial institutions, Drabu had arrived in All Party Hurriyat Conference’s Kashmir Awareness Bureau office at Delhi in 1996 with his friend Sidiq Wahid in an auto-rickshaw to discuss ideas to “liberate Kashmir from India”, says Malik.
“Drabu talked to me for hours and while praising our efforts for liberation of Jammu Kashmir from illegal occupation of India delivered several ideas and concepts for it,” the JKLF chief said. “Betraying his nation, he [Drabu] renounced resistance movement for his petty selfish gain.” Terming him an ample specimen of a sold-out mentality, the JKLF chief said, “Drabu-like collaborators want to prove their loyalty to their masters in Delhi and Nagpur by issuing statements… It is hypocrisy of Drabu-like people who once advocated freedom through their ideas…, which invoked thousands of young and old to join the freedom struggle and sacrifice their lives for it.”
Endorsing his chief’s outburst, a senior JKLF man says Drabu’s statement is his way of clearing decks for his long ambitious—yet elusive—plum posting of the RBI Governor. Even in media circles, such “ambitions” aren’t unknown.
But back in the day when Malik treated him as “friend”, Drabu would regularly write for a south Indian magazine known for its biting criticism of counter-insurgency, before becoming an editor of Business Standard.
Then in 2003, the late chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed appointed him as an Economic Adviser (EA) of the J&K State. By 2005, he rose to become the J&K Bank Chairman — who was known for his chain-smoking habits and sudden public transport appearances.
With the advent of the Omar Abdullah government in 2009, Drabu was removed as the Economic Advisor.
As the Chairman and CEO of J&K Bank, the bad blood between him and Omar’s government instantly became the talk of town before ending on his unceremonious sacking in August 2010. While hailing his positive policy-shifts in the state’s only listed company, his admirers accused the Abdullahs of scuttling his RBI ambitions.
Behind his ouster, Drabu would later tell, was his gesture to “stuff the ATMs with cash” amid the street uprising in Kashmir. It became an apparent high point in his career, as the move cut a “pro-people” banker image of him.
He left Kashmir for Mumbai to take up assignments in MNCs. After lying low for some time, he made a comeback with his weekly column in Greater Kashmir, where he would grill the government over its policies—even opposing GST—only to implement it later as the Finance Minister of the state.
Then, shuttling between Mumbai and Kashmir, he began surfacing as a chief guest in many seminars, where he would either question the mosque management or boycott politics of the resistance leadership. “I see his comeback as a scripted one,” says a senior scribe, “because here was the man suddenly raking up controversies through his write-ups or seminars. He was simply looking for a beautiful resistance in an ugly occupation.”
And then he changed his camp, and the rest is the history.
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