Kashmir’s ruling party sacks top leader for harming its ‘core agenda’. It must explain what that is

People’s Democratic Party dismissed Haseeb Drabu as finance minister for arguing that Kashmir was not a ‘political issue’.

Haseeb Drabu, former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir, has been punished for his transgressions. Speaking at an event in Delhi last week, he remarked that Kashmir “isn’t a political issue” but a social one, and that Kashmir’s is “a society that is in search for itself”. The People’s Democratic Party, to which Drabu belongs, asked him to retract his statement. On Monday, it removed him from the state Cabinet.

Drabu had been one of the most visible faces of the coalition government formed by the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. He was also believed to be close to the BJP. A BJP leader said Drabu played a crucial role in stitching together the alliance and was often a bridge between the two partners. Drabu’s dismissal, the leader added, was a “setback” to the alliance.

It was a troubled coalition to begin with. The People’s Democratic Party, which has its support base in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, and the BJP, brought to power by Hindu-majority Jammu, have been pulled in different directions over various issues: how resources should be allocated, where new educational institutions should be built, how the state flag should be hoisted. The latest issue troubling the coalition is the Kathua rape and murder case, which has become the centre of a polarising discourse.

In the Valley, the People’s Democratic Party paid a high political price for tying up with the BJP. An electorate which had cast its vote against the saffron party grew alienated and bye-elections held since then have been marked by violence or extremely low turnouts. With Drabu’s dismissal, the party seems to be laying claim to ideological purity and hardening its stance against the BJP. Drabu’s statement, the party asserted, went against its “core agenda”. But there has been confusion, for a while, about what its core agenda is.

A changing agenda

The People’s Democratic Party has traditionally been described as “soft-separatist”. Formed in 2002, it was popularly credited with bringing separatist politics into the electoral mainstream, advocating changes to the Indian Constitutional set-up to accommodate Kashmiri political aspirations.

This was crystallised in the “Self-Rule Framework for Resolution”, unveiled in 2008, a 40-page document that suggested restoring certain lost autonomies the state had enjoyed in the initial years after Independence as well as more radical changes. It argued for an elected governor, an executive head of the state who would be called “sadr-e-riyasat”. In keeping with this, it suggested that Article 356, the provision which empowers the Centre to impose President’s Rule in a state, not be applied to Jammu and Kashmir.

Gesturing towards Kashmiri nationalist ambitions, it called for the creation of a Regional Council of Greater Jammu and Kashmir, a “political superstructure” that would replace the Upper House of the state Assembly and include members from both sides of the Line of Control. Besides, sub-regional councils, representing different parts of Jammu and Kashmir, would be added to the “domestic legislative structure”.

The document also called for greater economic integration of the territories falling on either side of the Line of Control, with closer trade ties and a “dual currency system” where the legal tender of both India and Pakistan would be accepted in the area termed “Greater Jammu and Kashmir”.

When it campaigned for the Assembly election of 2014, the party continued to urge self-rule. But when it tied up with the BJP under the Agenda of Alliance, the emphasis shifted to economic autonomy. The agenda spoke of talks with Pakistan and separatist leaders, cross-border trade and connectivity, state control over power projects located in Jammu and Kashmir. The more radical demands of self-rule, including dual currency, were left out.

In the bye-election to the Anantnag Assembly seat that took place soon after the coalition was forged, self-rule was barely mentioned. The People’s Democratic Party invoked the economic promises of the Agenda of Alliance, stressing development and employment.

Three years later, most promises of the agenda remain unfulfilled. Talks with Pakistan are a distant prospect and the Central interlocutor’s attempt to reach out to separatist leaders have met with little success so far. Key hydroelectricity projects in the state are still run by the National Thermal Power Corporation.

A new political idea?

Drabu’s remarks were of a piece with the party’s slow progress to a more centrist politics. His dismissal points to a party nervously lashing out against the perception that it has diluted its ideology. It also coincides with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti ratcheting up the demand for talks with Pakistan. Some have seen these measures as preparation for the Assembly election in 2020, when the party will have to face disgruntled constituencies in the Valley once more.

But with the the political and economic components of self-rule whittled down, it must be asked whether it is a political idea that has been phased out. If it has, then the People’s Democratic Party needs to explain what idea replaces it.

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