Haseeb Drabu is the Finance, Labour & Employment and Culture Minister in the Jammu & Kashmir government. After winning his debut Assembly election from Rajpora constituency in 2014, he played a key role in stitching an alliance between the Peoples’ Democratic Party and the BJP. Elaborate talks with Ram Madhav of the BJP over almost three months resulted in an ‘agenda of alliance’. A banker-economist, he was chairman and CEO of J&K Bank before working with the Planning Commission and the Tenth Finance Commission. As J&K Finance Minister, he did away with the Plan, non-Plan distinction in this year’s state Budget, in sync with the Centre’s decision to accept the Fourteenth Finance Commission’s awards
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How do you plan to implement the Rs 80,000 crore package announced for J&K?
The package was part of a legacy — after the devastating floods, the previous government had submitted a package of Rs 44,000 crore. A reassessment by the World Bank pointed out that the package was of Rs 21,000 crore. NITI Aayog showed it to be Rs 11,000 crore. We reworked the package so that it not just provides relief from floods, but also development. We discussed this package with the Centre and worked out an amount of about Rs 1 lakh crore, with focus on rebuilding infrastructure, both public and private. It took us about eight months to get a consensus.
There were two options — announce a package and then look for funds. Or, get the funds first. I think the Rs 80,000 crore package will provide the right trigger for the J&K economy to be rebuilt. J&K has lost 25 years of development and we need to now catch up. This package should be seen as a catch-up plan.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: After being in government for almost eight months, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi to reassess the PDP-BJP alliance. What is your own assessment of the alliance?
It is a counter-intuitive alliance. Let’s not say it is a natural alliance. A view was taken that this alliance will provide a new path which will have implications not just for the state but also nationally. The alliance has worked very well internally, in terms of governance. In the last eight months, we have had no crisis. From outside, there has been the flag issue, the beef issue, but fundamentally, the alliance is very stable. It is far more robust than (the PDP’s) alliance with the Congress (previously).
Muzamil Jaleel: How do you reconcile your present position with that of the past? From being an admirer of Mohd Ali Jinnah, you are now in alliance with the RSS, which has a very different vision of Kashmir.
We have not compromised on our ideological position, whether it is Section 370 or the AFSPA or talks with Pakistan. Secondly, the result of the elections reflected the political realities on the ground. Jammu and Kashmir are different culturally, ethnically, linguistically — what holds them together is a political party. The first part of our alliance was to stay together (Jammu and Kashmir).
Our alliance is with the BJP, not the RSS. But a larger message has also been sent out. We realise it is important to engage with parties with different political ideologies to get some degree of consensus on basics. As we go along, we will see how much we are able to succeed.
I campaigned for eight months in the remotest regions, and never was the issue of resolution (of Kashmir) discussed. Nobody asked me my view on the issue of resolution. They were only concerned about electric poles, graveyard fencing, roads, masjid funds, etc.
Muzamil Jaleel: But very close to your constituency, Rajpora, a militant was recently killed, and his funeral was attended by thousands of people. There were protests also. When we talk to people anywhere in Kashmir, including the youth, resolution is the primary issue for them. What do you think is the solution to Kashmir?
It’s not an either/or. One of the basic premises I want to articulate is that no matter what political resolution you want to have, the economic base needs to be a part of it. The economic level one finds in J&K is worse than Bihar. So some bit of governance and development will be considered by any political establishment.
As regards youth, there is, no doubt, radicalisation. But that can be addressed best by our own culture. I am deeply interested in trying to revive the Kashmiri culture that we all know and grew up with. There is a whole lot of, what I call, the Arabisation of Islam with its own political connotations and nuances.
Maneesh Chhibber: Two of your MPs did not attend the PM’s function in the Valley, saying there was governance deficit by the current government. Would you like to comment on why two MPs chose to stay away? Also, while the PDP and the BJP leadership may have joined hands, there is some disquiet in both parties about the alliance?
I don’t see that disquiet within the parties. We were apprehensive initially, but it is not as bad as we expected it to be. Within every party, there are different voices. A senior political person may have said something, but the fact is that we have been able to provide some semblance of governance.
Maneesh Chhibber: Your alliance partner is predominantly Jammu based. Do you accept the view that people in Jammu have refused to accept the PDP leadership? They rejected the PM’s package as being loaded in favour of the Valley, so do you think they distrust this government?
Post the Amarnath row, there was a huge break-up in relations between Jammu and Kashmir. The reason for this alliance is to bring the people of these two parts of the state together. For the first time, Jammu has such say in governance, so they expect a lot more in terms of decision making. Mufti sahab spends a lot of time thinking about Jammu these days and tries to make the whole process very inclusive. Otherwise the easiest part is to trifurcate the state. We need to give things time and not rush to judgments. We have recognised the need to include the aspirations of the entire state, rather than become Valley- or Jammu-centric.
Seema Chishti: At the time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in, there was optimism that his personality will allow for talks with Pakistan. But after the subcontinent leaders being invited for the swearing-in, things have consistently gone south. Why do you think India and Pakistan are not talking?
It does worry us, but there is a huge history behind this. In the last 12 years, no progression has been made on the confidence-building front. I think you need to see it as a process. I think more important than the top-level talks are elements like culture, trade, etc, which we are hopeful will ultimately drive the peace process.
Seema Chishti: Did you ever make an effort to talk to the BJP about it?
I think when Mufti sahab met PM Modi, our belief that engagement with Pakistan is critical to the process of peace was underlined. Mufti sahab was asked this question earlier at a press conference too, and he said that our job is to keep trying. Today Pakistan has recognised that there is a democratic process in J&K, these are not the elections of 1976, where nobody voted. With a political career of more than 60 years, he (Mufti) feels that engagement with Pakistan is necessary.
Muzamil Jaleel: Nothing is happening on big issues like AFSPA or talks with Pakistan — where the PDP was critical of the National Conference. When Modi came to J&K, he said he doesn’t want advice on Pakistan from anybody. What do you say to that? Secondly, how is the PDP reading the victory of Nitish-Lalu combine over the BJP in Bihar?
The National Conference was the first to approach the BJP to form an alliance, much before the PDP started talking to the BJP. NC-PDP alliance cannot be equated with the Lalu-Nitish alliance. That time also there was a thought of a grand alliance, with the Congress also pitching in. (By doing so) you would vacate the space for opposition. Who will be in opposition? In a democracy, it is important to have an opposition and if all three mainstream parties combine, who would be the opposition in Kashmir?
This is a very strong and robust alliance. There is no bickering like you would see in the Congress-NC government. It’s a strange but strong alliance.
Seema Chishti: You are positing this alliance as a pragmatic thing. But does it worry you that this pragmatism may not be politically the best thing?
I don’t see it like that. Kashmir engaged with an idea of India. I grew up questioning the idea. That idea of India has changed. You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but it is a reality. Our alliance is an experiment in trying to engage with this idea of India, because the BJP has had an overwhelming mandate in the country and that you need to engage with.
Seema Chishti: You should have had a pre-poll alliance.
Not necessarily. We thought we would get 42 seats, so why should we get into a pre-poll alliance. (Then) we saw that the faultlines between Jammu and Kashmir were so strong, we didn’t expect to get routed in Chenab. We lost 4-5 seats in Srinagar by a hundred votes. But at the end of the day the alliance is an experiment in engaging with the new idea of India. You cannot not engage with it. It is the basic consideration and the philosophy of the alliance. It may fail in political terms, tomorrow we may get wiped out and the NC may come to power. But then we will not be accused of not understanding the trend. When you are faced with the reality on the ground, you begin to see that there is an emerging new idea of India. Should I just ignore it and be in Kashmir and continue to live like that? No.
As far as governance is concerned, I think we are doing very well, and we are also learning to live with each other. It is far more simpler than dealing with the Congress. The Congress was in a far bigger mess. I still remember walk-outs on every meeting. They had a very trade offish mentality, which I don’t find here. I find that there is some sensitivity to our needs too. This is the first time the BJP is engaging with minorities in the real sense and it’s a huge task for them. I think it could be a transformative exercise for them as well.
Seema Chishti: Is it going to be one?
If you ask me today, I think, yes. I think you may in some way see them recognising the realities, because today I don’t find an opposition by the BJP to Article 370 at the state level. I was surprised when we said we want the power projects back, the local BJP supported us the most. That is what the reality of governance does to you. Also, when the BJP goes about in the state, they see the human realities there, they don’t see some moral-ethical constructed entity there. So I think it softens the whole approach. So this experiment may pave the way for a transformation, and as I said it will have some national- and subcontinent-level impact as well.
Raj Kamal Jha: You said you are dealing with the BJP because it is engaging with a new idea of India. Can you talk about this ‘new idea of India’ in a bit more detail?
I think the whole thing is now in some ways a more open religious connotation on governance than cultural. Take the case of beef, it is a non-issue, Kashmir has been a non-beef-eating society. It has the highest bovine to human ratio in India, because we don’t kill them. Why is it becoming an issue? Because in today’s India, culture has given way to religion as a prime driver. Culturally, I am a non-beef-eating Kashmiri, but because today religion is a predominant narrative, I have to now say that if I am Muslim, I have to eat beef. The whole beef agitation was a fight between what is prime today — culture or religion.
We are subsuming culture and giving primacy to religion. I think that is a major change. To be comfortable with it in both governance and political terms is another big change. So we, as enlightened citizens, liberals, may not like the idea, but that is the reality on the ground in large parts of India. I believe a large part of what was started in J&K wasn’t an identity or religious battle, but today it has become that. So the new idea of India spawned a new idea of Kashmir, which wasn’t there. The biggest responsibility is to bring back that Kashmir and for that, there will be a big role played by culture in the next 5-7 years.
I also think that there has been this latent suppression at various levels for the Nehruvian consensus on Kashmir, and that has been turned on its head. When you go out campaigning, there is a very different world out there.
Muzamil Jaleel: The BJP has a very strong and stated position on Kashmir. Given that, what do you think is the solution to Kashmir? Is status quo the answer or do you have something else on your mind?
What was relevant in 1947 is not relevant today. I think the notion of sovereignty has changed over time and we need to rethink the resolution in that context. These elections were not fought for the resolution of J&K. So we still feel that resolution is the self-rule way, where you have access across borders etc. I tend to look at it from an economist’s perspective, perhaps movement of capital and labour, people, trade will make borders irrelevant. You could conceive a situation where common economic markets exist and you could look at SAARC as an overwhelming context for J&K to resolve its own issues. So I think that is where the resolution issue lies as far as the PDP is concerned.
Muzamil Jaleel: When is Mehbooba Mufti set to take over as CM?
When she chooses to be. PDP is a creation of Mehbooba Mufti, it is not a party that was built by Mufti sahab. It was built and nurtured by Mehbooba Mufti. So she is the rightful person for the post because she has built the party. For a woman to come up in Kashmir, in that phase of Kashmir, it was hugely conflict driven then. To say that Mufti sahab will pass on the baton to Mehbooba, I don’t think that is the right way to say it. She deserves it because she built the party and when she chooses to become the CM, she will become the CM.
Liz Mathew: As someone who has been working with BJP leaders, do you think the party has evolved and become a party of governance or is it still in the clutches of the RSS?
I would say that it is in a phase of transition. With the compulsions of governance, they will become a party of that kind (governance-driven). I don’t see any other way for it to be, which is really what one is banking on in terms of our relationship (PDP-BJP), that it will cease to be a party with a certain world-view that is unimplementable in a diverse country.