In a move that will strain the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir – and the credibility of the state’s governing coalition – chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has sacked her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) colleague Dr Haseeb Drabu as finance minister. The move came days after his remarks – that the situation in the trouble-torn region shouldn’t be seen as a political problem but as a social issue – triggered a storm.
Highly placed sources have told Asia Times that PDP’s ally, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) – which also rules federally – backed Mehbooba’s decision. The two parties, we have learned, had already received “serious complaints” against Drabu and were looking for a “valid reason” to get rid of him.
Drabu and the BJP’s General Secretary, Ram Madhav, are seen as the architects of the ‘Agenda of Alliance,’ a policy that stresses the need to resolve the Kashmir issue through dialogue with various stakeholders, including separatists.
On March 9, while addressing ‘Ambassadors Meet,’ a function hosted by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an industry body, in New Delhi, Drabu said: “Jammu and Kashmir shouldn’t be seen as a conflict state or a political problem, but as a society with social issues.”
Interestingly, Drabu was accompanied by two Cabinet colleagues, Syed Altaf Bukhari and Imran Reza Aasari, neither of whom contradicted his statement at the event. It was only on the following day when media reported his remarks that the matter snowballed into a controversy.
Asia Times learns from highly placed sources that, subsequently, on March 11, Mehbooba summoned Bukhari to “know the reality behind the controversy surrounding Ambassador’s Meet.” Sources say Bukhari spewed venom against Drabu over his statement. Later that afternoon, the PDP sent Drabu a formal letter asking him to clarify his position. Within 24 hours, and he before he could properly respond, he had been formally sacked.
Government sources say that the PDP started working on Drabu’s ouster soon after firing off the letter. On Monday morning, when the Civil Secretariat opened in Jammu, senior PDP leaders – including Bukhari and AR Veeri – met at the office of government spokesperson Naeem Akhter Andrabi. He drafted the letter of Drabu’s dismissal, addressed to Governor Narinder Nath Vohra, before it was signed by the Chief Minister.
Meanwhile, Mehbooba’s key advisor, the academic Amitabh Mattoo, was on a “secret mission” to hold talks with the Governor. Sources say Professor Mattoo, who is often seen as Mehbooba’s point-man for lobbying in New Delhi, convinced Vohra, during an hour-long meeting, of the “necessity to sack Drabu Sahib in the interest of good governance, peace and prosperity in the region.”
Sources close to Mehbooba say she had received numerous complaints against the ousted finance minister.
Officials in the state Finance Department said Drabu – who played a crucial role in having India’s controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST) enforced in the state, which otherwise enjoys “special status” by virtue of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution – was under scrutiny for having allegedly flexed the rules to exempt some private firms from the new tax regime.
“Try to understand that no senior minister who played a significant role in government formation is sacked for a mere remark unless something has already been cooking up against him”
Documents accessed by Asia Times suggest that a leading Mumbai-based firm was given a tax exemption for construction of a hydro-electric project in central Kashmir worth Rs 8.19 billion (US$126 million). Sources claim Mehbooba was already unhappy over relaxations for firms outside the state, which have cost Jammu and Kashmir’s own exchequer.
After the ouster of Farooq Andrabi in December, Drabu is the second minister to be dropped from Mehbooba’s cabinet, which was formed in 2016. Many in the PDP say she feared Drabu, a former banker who was also close to some senior BJP leaders, was trying to “destabilize her central authority.” It is believed that she had asked her loyalists in the administration to keep track of his movements.
“Try to understand that no senior minister who played a significant role in government formation is sacked for a mere remark unless something has already been cooking up against him,” said a senior PDP leader. “The ouster signifies that Mehbooba is the ultimate authority in the party and the government.”
The only cabinet minister who offered Drabu his support was the separatist-turned-mainstream leader Sajad Gani Lone, who tweeted: “The speech of my colleague and friend @HaseebDrabu brutally quoted out of context. In wonderment how our journalists report. @JKNC_ out with the knives could be victims of the same brutal reportage. Grandstanding will only encourage this menace.”
Drabu’s remarks had sparked off a furious reaction from the principal opposition party in the state, the pro-India National Conference, and separatist camps alike.
The influential Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, on the other hand, took a dig at the PHD Chamber’s state chapter, headed by businessman Mushtaq Chaya. “By using the platform of an organization which is based in Delhi our narrative of Kashmir is being tried to be diluted and an impression being created particularly in front of ambassadors present on the occasion,” the KCCI said in a handout.
Despite repeated attempts, Dr Drabu couldn’t be contacted for comment; nor did respond to email queries from Asia Times.