Sacking Drabu: Mehbooba's gamble

Sacking Drabu: Mehbooba's gamble

The timing and reasons for the sudden sacking of J&K finance minister Haseeb Drabu recently point to a big political gamble taken by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. The decision to sack Drabu for his comments that Kashmir "is not a political, but a social problem" came at a time when the Mehbooba and her People's Democratic Party (PDP) are running over a double-edged sword of internal dissension and external political onslaughts.

Drabu, a former banker, had worked out the terms of the PDP's 'Agenda of Alliance' (AoA) with the BJP and succeeded in implementing the controversial GST in J&K. He was so important for the PDP that Mehbooba's father, the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, trusted him to work out the terms of the 'AoA' with BJP national secretary Ram Madhav, which finally paved the way for the present PDP-BJP coalition ruling the state since March 2015.

It is unlikely that such a key and powerful minister was thrown out of the government over a mere controversial remark. By dropping Drabu, Mehbooba has conveyed a message to her adversaries not only within the party but in the BJP as well that she is ready to take political risks and has the power to call the shots.  

Right from the day Mehbooba took over the reins in April 2016 after the death of her father, it has been an open secret in the Valley that she had been feeling increasingly insecure because of colleagues like Drabu. His proximity to BJP and RSS top brass didn't go well within the party, whose core constituency is the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley.

Drabu's growing influence in the corridors of power in Delhi possibly prompted his hasty expulsion. There was a perception in the PDP that Drabu was more "Delhi's man in Kashmir than Kashmir's man in Delhi".  

By dropping him, the PDP chief has also tried to show the party's ideological commitment to the political status of Kashmir and its tenacious commitment to resolve it through the idea of self-rule. Other reasons for Drabu's exit could be that the script of his 'AoA', which emphasises sustainable dialogue not only with separatists but with Pakistan, too, is yet to bear fruit even in the fourth year of the alliance.

It is no secret in Kashmir that PDP, since its inception in 1999, has got tactical support of the separatist organisations. And by throwing out Drabu unceremoniously, Mehbooba, it seems, is trying to pin the blame for the 'failure' of the alliance agenda on him.

The late Mufti had, in one his first utterances after taking charge as chief minister in March 2015, credited the Hurriyat, militants and "people from across" - a reference to Pakistan - for the high turnout in the 2014 assembly polls. Till 2015, PDP was always viewed as a pro-Kashmir party and critics often accused it of promoting "soft separatism" and Mehbooba as a "militant sympathiser."  

However, all this changed after the PDP entered into an alliance with the BJP, which Kashmiris termed as a "betrayal of their mandate and hopes." The fault lines in the power sharing arrangement between the BJP and the PDP were exposed early and it was the saffron party that always prevailed over the regional party's aspirations.

With Parliamentary elections just a year away and Assembly polls scheduled in 2020, there is every possibility that Mehbooba and her PDP would try to bargain for as much as possible from the Centre to woo back voters. However, the BJP seems to be in no mood to agree to its alliance partner's demands.

Similar fates

Drabu is not the first politician in the PDP whose rise and fall has been abrupt. Before him leaders like Muzaffar Hussain Baig, Tariq Karra and Ghulam Hassan Mir had met similar fates in the PDP.

While Baig, Karra and Mir were relegated by late Mufti to ensure that his daughter has a smooth sail once the baton of the party passed to her, Drabu was made a sacrificial goat for an utterance that most politicians in Kashmir make in one or the other shape. This swift move has proved that Mehbooba, apart from her growing political stature, has emerged as a strong and ruthless politician. And that is what political survival in Kashmir demands.

Mehbooba's critics call her approach "opportunism" as she changes her stance to suit her position. Before Drabu, she dropped Altaf Bukhari, a business tycoon-turned-politician, from the cabinet in 2016 for "conspiring to revolt against her."

Bukhari, otherwise a trusted lieutenant of her father, remained in oblivion for nearly a year before he was taken back into the cabinet as education minister in 2017, apparently due to his proximity to the BJP leadership in Delhi.

While all such moves, especially the recent ouster, consolidate Mehbooba's position as a strong party head, she knows that Delhi is in no mood to accept her "soft separatism" posture, which in the past paid PDP rich dividends in elections. So, it is likely that in the coming months, PDP will toughen its posture against ally BJP.

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